COMING AND GOING IN ALL DIRECTIONS: PREPARING STUDENTS FOR ONLINE LEARNING
In online learning, information comes and goes in all directions. Often students are overwhelmed and learning can suffer. But, with a little help and support, everyone can learn to manage information in an online learning environment. This presentation will offer recommendations for preparing students to navigate the multi-layered information path.
THE NEED FOR STUDENT PREPARATION
As time goes on, more and more students will enter higher education equipped with the skills needed for a successful online learning experience. For now, especially in our community colleges, we must be prepared to teach students whose skills leave something to be desired. We must commit time and energy to preparing them for a successful online learning experience.
ASSESSING STUDENT SKILLS
So, the very first thing to do in student preparation is to assess the skill levels of the students as they pertain to the technology. Some institutions set minimum proficiency standards before allowing students even to register for online courses. Others have mandatory training sessions for students. Many simply offer courses online to any student who has access to the Internet and is willing to participate. The odds are pretty good that this is the case in your institution. If so, you will have to determine your students' abilities when it comes to handling information in an asynchronous, multilevel learning environment.
How do we do this? Well, there are many good ideas out there and it is strongly recommended that you explore the options in the list of resources at the end of this presentation. Of course you'll want to send the usual introductory material concerning email etiquette, chat room protocol, etc, and you may include a survey designed to assess skills along with that. But students may not answer truthfully for a number of reasons, or they may not know enough even to answer correctly. My suggestion is that you set up a sort of "treasure hunt" as described below. You can set a list of required tasks that must be completed by a date prior to the start of class. Make sure to allow time for contact and individual instruction for students who cannot complete all of the tasks. Also be sure that each task includes some feedback to the instructor that either verifies its completion or requests assistance.
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Information sent and received in online courses should be accessible to students when they are offline. To accomplish this, information from web pages, email transmissions, chat room logs, message boards, etc., can be copied and pasted into documents in whatever word processing software the student has available. We can instruct our students to create documents with titles relevant to topics in the course and to copy and past pertinent information in these documents. Students should include a heading before each entry with the source such as email from Student X on 2/18/99 or web page at http://xxx.xxx.com . Most word processing programs also have a "find" function that allows for a search for a key word. This is an advantage over saving every email transmission or downloading entire web pages for review.
Filing email in folders created for specific topics also helps to keep the student from being overwhelmed with transmissions from the instructor, other students, listserves and newsgroups. We should encourage students to sort through their email once or twice a day. The consequences are the same as if they allow their snail mail to pile up -- clutter and confusion. We need to reduce that whenever and wherever possible.
Bookmarks are another valuable tool for managing information. Downloading can cause clutter on the students computer that slows things down. It also takes time to search through downloaded files to find information. Encourage students to use bookmarks and, if given the choice, to name the bookmark with a title relating to the information on the page. Creating effective titles or subject lines is a learned art, but a rewarding one.
MAKING THE CONNECTION
Feedback is the key to connection with the instructor. Each email received should be acknowledged that same day. A simple reply with the message "mail received, will respond ASAP" lets the student know that the email went to the right place and gives the instructor time to sort through and prioritize messages later. It is a good habit to check messages several times a day, responding and filing all messages for consideration or action during a designated time. It also helps to remind students that the subject line of an email is important. If the message is time sensitive, students should indicate that in the subject line, just as the instructor should in messages to students.
Connection to other students taking the course need not only be in organized group activities. In a traditional classroom, students interact before, during, and after class. An initial get together in the chat room environment you will use for the class will not only allow you to work out any problems before hand, but also allow for student introductions in real time instead of dry, introductory emails. Conversation between students can be very revealing for the instructor as well. We can encourage sidebar conversations and email between students to help establish connections and encourage discussion. Many students are more open in the online environment than they would be in a traditional classroom setting and, despite concerns to the contrary, can be even more connected to their classmates.
Connection to the course material is something we must encourage students to make for themselves. By encouraging this connection in our group activities and discussion questions, we can make the material relevant. When online course content is connected to the student, it is real even if it is not as tangible as a hard copy.
I have included a list of resources at the end of this presentation. Each of them has contributed to the presentation in some way. But the foundation of the presentation is my personal experience on both sides of online learning. As a student in an online learning environment, I had to learn to deal with information coming and going in all directions. I soon learned that online learning required a rethinking of the way I managed information and a fresh approach to learning. This is a good thing. The suggestions and recommendations included in this presentation are designed to help students realize just how much of a good thing it is.
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