I teach in the Caribbean - from a French chateau

November 21, 2003

Distance learning has much to offer students - and lecturers - yet it remains underexploited, says Barry Blundell

A November mist leaches colour from the parklands surrounding this 15th-century French chateau. By 9am, logs are blazing in the fireplace by my computer. I log on and examine today's student emails and the bulletin board of three online courses I provide to the University of the Virgin Islands.

Getting students to join discussion generally takes time, but without it students on asynchronous distance-learning (ADL) programmes can flounder.

When they begin to participate, the course gains momentum - students raise questions, others assist and the pace of learning and depth of understanding improves. Maintaining dynamic on-topic discussion is not easy. Some students dominate, others are reluctant. Each must be encouraged to contribute regularly, and the lecturer must initiate and continually guide. Today, I seed several questions, answer some and request input from two students who have not contributed recently.

Such teaching is time-consuming. Last semester, I also presented three undergraduate courses (40 students in total). My communications tally was: incoming emails 2,417; outgoing emails 1,697; incoming bulletin board postings 978; outgoing 318.

Even without face-to-face contact, a lecturer rapidly comes to know each student. Written communication places an additional responsibility on the lecturer, but it also makes students sharpen their professional writing skills. Given the opportunities for cheating, familiarity with individual writing styles is a key indicator when, for example, material is plagiarised. Today, while marking assignments, inconsistent style causes me to follow up on work submitted by two students. Both have copied. They score zero.

I log off. This evening, I will return to the course website, respond to questions, perhaps chat with students who are online. But now I am free to turn to my research interests, undistracted by committee meetings. My teaching is far removed from my previous existence as a campus lecturer.

Take a typical lecture. You stand in front of a 400-seat auditorium; seats fill; students read, complete assignments or doze. You dim the lights and start a 50-minute presentation. But time passes slowly for the students listening to monologues. They yawn, so you insert vaguely relevant, politically correct humour. Students in larger classes seldom pose questions, and you worry if explanations generate bewildered expressions.

The availability of photocopied or online lecture notes have rendered note-taking obsolete, and with it the skills of simultaneously listening and interpreting. When a lecture ends, a dribble of students approach with questions, some of which indicate that they were left behind minutes into the monologue. You make your exit, drained.

As a physics student at Manchester University in the 1970s, I encountered rambling lecturers who, although frustrating, were fondly remembered. Faced with such varying presentation styles, students became adept at transforming incoherence into meaningful notes.

Historically, lectures permitted the dissemination of course content, with support from student study. Nowadays, little effort is required to prepare and distribute CDs or create a website containing course notes, sample questions, solutions and the like. Many students work to support themselves. Consequently, preparation for today's educational offerings is unlikely, as is any follow-up, until forced by assignment work or exams.

Students have little time for individual study, and the lecture often stands in isolation. Perhaps it is time to question the effectiveness and overall contribution of large lectures to the educational process.

ADL cannot support large classes. The maximum acceptable staff-to-student ratio is perhaps 1:60. Beyond this, communication response times degrade unacceptably: students need rapid responses to questions. Despite the small class sizes, ADL is cost-effective because the infrastructure required for conventional lecturing is unnecessary.

This form of learning comes into its own when guest lecturers are invited to interact with students and to contribute expert academic knowledge and industrial experience. Currently, however, ADL courses present an additional load to lecturers who also teach conventionally. The benefit of employing off-campus staff for ADL teaching has yet to be considered properly.

Barry Blundell is a physicist who has taught many online courses for the University of the Virgin Islands (US) from his home in France. He is writing two books, one about the e-learning experience.

For more on e-learning, see this week's  ICT in Higher Education  supplement.

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