Adventures on the cyber shop floor

August 18, 2000

Before launching her web-based courses, Diana Kelly put herself in the students' shoes and learnt how to learn online

My new year's resolution in 1999 was to learn about online teaching. After 20 years of lecturing and managing in higher education, I was feeling out of touch. Time was limited and my schedule unpredictable, so I was thrilled to find a teaching certificate course offered by the University of California, Los Angeles (I am American). There were start and finish dates, but the time you put in was flexible. Best of all - the class was entirely online, so there was no need for trips to Los Angeles.

The course consisted of five core modules and one elective one. They were offered over four or six-week periods during four terms each year: winter, spring, summer and autumn. By taking the maximum of two modules each term, it was possible to complete the programme in three terms.

On enrolling, I received a welcoming email that recommended ordering textbooks online and gave web links. It included advice on how to download the necessary Embanet software. All participants had to complete a four-part online self-paced orientation, which was where we learnt to use the discussion groups, submit assignments, participate in synchronous chat, go to the course resources and get help from Embanet. Without this orientation and the technical support by phone and email, the course would have been frustrating, if not impossible.

About a week before the course started, I received a welcome email from the teacher asking everyone to go to the course website and introduce ourselves, our background, our interest in online learning and what we were hoping to achieve. It was fun to read others' notes and to discover they were not all from higher education, but also from secondary level, as well as training and development. We were from all over North America, Asia and Europe. Some were from remote areas and had no university within travelling distance. I eagerly checked into the course website every day to see if anyone new had joined.

The module websites included required reading, a timetable for topics and assignments and course resources. The teacher also provided a detailed course syllabus, with grading criteria.

One of the most important requirements was participation in discussions several times a week. We started the curriculum module with good solid background reading.

The online asynchronous discussions were lively. The teacher was an active participant - sometimes providing answers to questions, other times raising new ones. Because the discussions were written and occurred whenever someone felt like submitting an item, they were more thoughtful than the typical face-to-face debate. We students became helpmates. If one person raised a question, often two or three others would respond with answers or online resources.

The assignments were practical, relating the course material to the creation of online course materials. But what was very different was that they were submitted to the website and students were encouraged to look at one another's assignments and offer comments and suggestions. The comments were positive and affirming and when suggestions were offered it was in the spirit of helpfulness - learners helping learners. Some projects and assignments were done in groups. It is possible to do group work online, if it is organised properly.

One assignment was to create a fictional course website around a particular topic. In my small group (assigned by the teacher), there was one member in Switzerland, one in New York, one in Texas and two in California (including myself). We decided who would do which part of the project. Most of our work was done asynchronously through our own group discussion site, which the teacher had set up on the course website. But a couple of times we decided to try a synchronous chat to check in with the group members. Considering the nine-hour time difference between California and Switzerland (and others in between) we determined a time that would work for all of us - 11am California time, which was 8pm in Switzerland, 1pm in Texas and 2pm in New York. It worked pretty well, but the chats were a little confusing - just as you thought of a response to someone's comment, there were three other responses about something else.

The quality of the experience was really influenced by the tone set by the teacher. When a teacher was actively engaged on a daily basis and showed his/her enthusiasm for the students, the topic and the discussion, the response from students was stronger. Some modules were so involving that I checked the website at every opportunity - at lunchtime in front of my computer, most evenings and at weekends.

People often ask me how much time this sort of course takes. My experience is that, as with any course, it depends on your interest and motivation. You could spend as much time online and completing assignments as you wanted to - but on average I probably spent about ten to 15 hours a week on each module (more when major assignments were due).

What is more interesting is how much time it takes as a teacher. This issue came up frequently in the online discussions because as prospective teachers of online courses, we wanted to know.

The teachers answered truthfully that the busiest time was at weekends because that is when most students have the time to do concentrated work. They check in every day to respond to discussions and questions. Students on online courses can also contact the teacher privately through a different email set up on the course website.

The best teachers also felt it was important to respond quickly to these queries so students were not held up on their assignments. If teachers were travelling to a conference, they would let us know that they would be out of touch until they had their laptops set up in the hotel room. There is no question that teaching online takes a lot of time, dedication and learner-centredness.

I completed the last of my online modules in September 1999 and gained my certificate. I was able to apply my learning to create some online workshops for lecturers who were interested in learning new teaching strategies for their face-to-face classes.

A secondary purpose of the online workshops is to provide lecturers with experience of being a student, so they can see how it works and feels, spot the pitfalls and the advantages, and so on. I developed two online workshops (self-paced and open-entry) on the website.

I learnt four things from the course.

First, online learning is not for everyone. Some said they really missed the face-to-face contact or hearing the voices of the teacher or of students. Perhaps it is a learning style issue.

Second, online learning takes much more self-discipline and self-motivation than a face-to-face class. So those who think it is going to be easier are in for a big surprise. But it can also be a very involving, even when you are physically separated from your teacher and classmates and you do not know what they look like and have never heard their voices. It is not like the old correspondence school model, where you learn entirely on your own. But the involvement needs to be carefully built in and nurtured and facilitated.

Third, online learning is impossible without good technical support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It can be incredibly frustrating when the course website crashes.

Finally, I learned the importance of having a very positive experience as an online student before attempting to offer an online course as a teacher. In fact, I am convinced that the lack of this experience is the reason many online courses have been unsuccessful and have abysmal completion rates.

My advice to any prospective online teachers is to try at least one module of a well-facilitated online course to see how it works from the student's perspective. And I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I did.

Diana Kelly is learning development officer at Dublin Institute of Technology.

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