Internet Distance Learning: How Do I Put My Course on the Web?
Distance Learning is the hottest topic under discussion in higher education today. If one attends distance learning conferences, the wide variation in preparation for distance learning is quite evident, with some institutions offering entire degrees online, while others are still asking "How do we do this?" The first step is often the hardest to take when radically changing the format or the delivery of any course. This paper will describe the steps taken at Purdue University Calumet to put our courses online and the problems we encountered, along with our solutions.
Distance Learning at Purdue Calumet
A distance learning pilot project at Purdue Calumet began during the 1996 summer session. Two courses were chosen for the project: CIS 204, Introduction to Computer-Based Systems and CIS 286, Computer Operating Systems I. The former course is composed of computer literacy and an introduction to office productivity software (word processing, spreadsheets, etc.). The students in this course are both CIS majors and non-majors. The latter course is a required course for CIS majors and is an introduction to the concepts relating to computer operating systems. A major portion of the course is the use of laboratory assignments to reinforce concepts learned during the lecture.
During each subsequent semester since the pilot project, additional courses have been added to our list of online courses. As of this spring semester, 12 courses have been converted to the Internet format. The ultimate goal of the department is to offer our Associate Degree as an online degree. We currently offer a post-baccalaureate certificate online, since that certificate requires eight CIS courses for completion. As more courses become available on the Internet, the goal of an online degree will become a reality.
Class Conversion Techniques
CIS 204. This course was the easier of the two pilot courses to convert to the online format. The two books used in this course contain all the lab materials and a CD-ROM with lecture material for the students to use. A course syllabus was developed that matched the syllabus used in the on-campus course with lab and homework assignments, due dates and test dates. An important aspect of distance learning is to ensure that the course that is offered over the Internet is of the same quality as those courses offered on-campus; thus the two syllabi were identical.
The home page for the class includes a course description, instructor information, the syllabus, textbook information and hardware/software requirements. The latter lists the minimum system requirements that the students must have in order to run the required software for the class. The course uses the newest editions of Microsoft's Office (distributed on CD-ROM), so the students must have access to this software in order to participate in the course. The students must also know how to access their e-mail accounts and attach files to an e-mail message, since these concepts are not taught in the course.
CIS 286. A course for CIS majors, this one is more rigorous than the CIS 204 class and thus requires a more complex set of laboratory assignments. The lecture portion of the on-campus course uses PowerPoint slides to illustrate important points and to keep the material organized for the students. The on-campus students were required to buy a workbook that contained copies of the slides so they could spend more time listening to the lecture material rather than copying notes. The slides used in the class were converted to a PowerPoint format that could be loaded on the Internet server so the online students could download them. Since the introduction of the online course, the workbook is no longer sold in the bookstore, and all the students are given access to the online slides. The only difficulty with this process was that a number of diagrams and drawings had to be scanned in and included with the slides to complete the material.
The other challenge with CIS 286 was to allow students access through the Internet to several computers on the Purdue Calumet campus. The lab exercises in this class are run on an IBM AS/400, a DEC Alpha and a Hewlett Packard UNIX machine. The students cannot simulate these labs on a home computer, and thus we needed to develop a way for remote access. A software package called Net Term, from Intersoft International, Inc., is now used to allow the students to access all three computer systems. The system acts like a Telnet connection. The students access the remote systems using Net Term, and then simply log in as if they were sitting at a terminal directly connected to the selected computer. The Net Term software d'es all the necessary terminal emulation to make the home computer appear to be an acceptable terminal.
The home pages for these courses all look similar, so this course also lists the topics shown for CIS 204. The difference lies in the Hardware/Software requirements, because the students must use a Zip utility to unzip the lab assignments.
Pitfalls to Avoid
The major problem that we found with the initial courses in this project was the lack of information given to students by advisors about these courses, particularly in the case of the CIS 204 students who are non-majors. Often, the advisors in departments other than ISCP did not know the format for the distance learning courses and thus did not inform their students about what to expect from the course. As a result, approximately half of the students who initially signed up for CIS 204 the first semester dropped out within the first two weeks. This left a very small group of people in the course who followed it to completion. CIS 286 had a better success rate primarily because the students were more computer literate. But even in that course, a problem existed with students who did not correspond with the instructor on a regular basis. A solution to this problem has been implemented by requiring all students to check in with the instructor via e-mail once a week to report on their progress.
Another problem that occurred during the first classes and continued to occur for several semesters was attempting to get the students' e-mail addresses. In the ISCP department, the advisors were requested to get the student's e-mail address when the student signed up for the course. However, non-majors or those who went to another advisor did not provide their e-mail address. Often, students who wanted to sign up for the courses would promise to get an e-mail address before the start of class. To eliminate the problem, all distance learning students are required to e-mail their instructor prior to the beginning of the course. We have listed the instructor's e-mail address along with the course link on the department distance learning page so that contacting instructors is easy for students. The instructors' e-mail addresses are also posted on all faculty office doors for those students who are also taking on-campus courses.
Students in Internet distance learning courses often have technical problems. During the pilot project, the CIS instructors helped the students with problems whenever possible, but some situations had to be solved by a service provider or computer vendor. As our variety of distance learning courses has expanded to other departments whose faculty are not as technically oriented as the CIS faculty, we needed to find a clearinghouse for student technical problems. An agreement was reached with our "Customer Service Center" (known as a help desk in other places) to allow distance learning students to call them for non-course related technical problems.
In a distance learning environment, students often feel isolated since they don't have the classroom environment in which to interact with the instructor. To overcome this feeling, instructors provide various forms of office hours and methods of contacts for the students. I use both on-campus office hours and online office hours. I set aside 3 hours a week during which I am available online for my students to get immediate answers to questions. Since a majority of my students work during the day, my office hours are in the evening one night a week. Other instructors spread their hours during the week with some during the day and in the evening. I had one instructor indicate that he has office hours on Sunday nights from 8 PM to 10 PM because that was the most convenient time for his entire class.
The only obstacle that we still face with inadequate solutions available is the issue of testing. As stated previously, it is important to maintain consistency between the on-campus and online courses. To accomplish this, many instructors require the online students to come to campus to take tests. This can be accomplished by holding the test on a Saturday or other time convenient for a majority of the students. An alternative is to give an essay-type take-home test as a research project for the tests. This method is acceptable if there is not an on-campus section of the course offered during that semester. What is needed is a good, secure, online method for administering course testing.
The methods used to convert a traditional classroom course into an Internet one are many and will depend on the content. One suggestion is to take a portion of the class that is easily adaptable to the Web, put it online and then have the students access that material prior to attending class. By doing this, the instructor can get a feeling for using the Web for instruction, the students become familiar with accessing information from the Web, and it can be a starting point for putting the entire course online.
Although there have been problems along the way with our online courses, the success of the project is phenomenal. All divisions of the courses fill during early registration, and we can fill as many sections as we can get on the schedule. Other disciplines are also finding the courses to be very popular. As distance learning becomes more acceptable in academic circles, the importance of these early courses will become apparent. Getting online now is a way to be prepared for the future of higher education.
This article originally appeared in the 05/01/1999 issue of THE Journal.