TEACHING YOUR FIRST ONLINE CLASS -- A WORK IN PROGRESS
Clayton College & State University (CCSU) is a four-year university located in the Southern Crescent of Atlanta, serving approximately 4,500 commuter students. CCSU was founded in 1969 as a two-year college and became a four-year institution in 1985. Currently, the University offers a variety of certificates and degrees including a certificate, associate's degree, and bachelor's degree in Information Technology.
In 1994, Richard Skinner, current president and only the college's second president, took the helm. In 1995, he shared his vision of every student having a laptop. With much discussion and planning, this became a reality in January 1998. Each student registered in a credit course at CCSU is required to lease a notebook computer, complete with Office 97, e-mail, and internet access in the classroom and at home.
With this college in mind we wrote our paper about online instruction based on the following assumptions:
Also, it must be noted that this is the authors' first semester of teaching an online course; therefore, our paper is truly a "work in progress."
I. THE PARALEGAL ONLINE COURSE EXPERIENCE -- Perry Binder
When each student received a laptop in January 1998, I expanded the use of technology by developing critical-thinking computer exercises for traditional classes. In class, students can log onto the internet, research a legal issue online, and then discuss the answer. For home application, I set up a threaded discussion board, known as "The Bull," where students can ask fellow students and me review questions about lectures or exams, and respond to my assignments. After a recent Ethics lecture, for example, I asked students to think of ethical dilemmas faced by attorneys or paralegal from a television show or movie, then to post the dilemma and possible solution on The Bull, where other students can react and interact.
I decided to develop an online class for Spring 1999 as a way to offer flexibility to students who work during the day and commute to campus several evenings a week. I chose Contracts & Torts for several reasons, including the following:
The motivation for offering Contracts & Torts online is detailed in _ How Did We Get Here? _ (http://tech.clayton.edu/binder/most.htm) The number one goal, though, was to create a learning environment as effective as classroom instruction.
B. DESIGNING AND PREPARING FOR AN ONLINE CLASS
* Course Objectives;
* Weekly reading assignments for each class (http://tech.clayton.edu/binder/SYLLCONT.HTM);
* Weekly reading from the Lecture Hall (http://tech.clayton.edu/binder/lecture3.htm);
* A library with frequently used web sites; and
* A link to my home page.
In addition, I set up a threaded discussion board called "The Courtroom Bull" and a chat room called the "Jury Box." To ensure privacy, these devices are not linked to the syllabus.
The students in this class have the following requirements:
1. Read materials for the assigned week in the syllabus;
2. Read the notes I post in the Lecture Hall for the corresponding week;
3. Post questions and responses to my targeted questions in The Courtroom Bull (and interact with classmates) -- attendance is kept as students post at least once a week; and
4. Meet fellow classmates at their convenience in the Jury Box chat room.
I developed an interactive, hyperlinked syllabus for Contracts & Torts, since no textbook can deliver what the internet can: a thorough treatment of Business Organizations, Contracts, Torts, and Georgia law, with timely legal articles -- for free! However, a significant drawback to this setup is that students have an understandably difficult time absorbing material off a computer screen, and they usually end up printing the reading assignments. For optional supplemental reading, I placed three textbooks on Business Organizations, Contracts, and Torts on reserve at our library for reference.
The online class has a mandatory 0n-campus orientation session and two exams on campus. At the orientation, we discussed why the class is online and set out the goals for the semester. The students are already familiar with the internet, e-mail and The Bull, since they've taken my introductory paralegal course. In addition, we discussed the team projects. As in the traditional Contracts & Torts class, online students must perform the following activities:
1. Conduct a Secretary of State search online and draft Articles of Incorporation for a company -- this assignment is handed in at the first exam;
2. Draft a complex commercial contract with a teammate (selected at the orientation) -- this assignment is sent to me via e-mail attachment or put in my mailbox on campus; and
3. Draft discovery requests in a torts case with a teammate (selected at the orientation) -- this assignment is sent to me via e-mail attachment or put in my mailbox on campus.
Team-building skills are an important component in the Paralegal Studies Program, since paralegals often work in teams with attorneys. In the traditional Contracts & Torts class, I usually spend a portion of class time breaking up into team meetings (three or four on a team) for students to work on the projects. In the online class, this task might require getting together on their own and then swapping drafts of the project via e-mail attachment (in the same manner that paralegals and attorneys review document drafts with clients). I decided to use teams of two for the class, figuring it would be easier to work with only one other person online.
In the orientation packet, I provided students with examples of the structure and format of a contract (I have sample discovery forms on reserve for the torts project). This semester, the contract project has the student assuming the role of a paralegal for Fox Television. His/her attorney is negotiating the purchase of all rights to the "Dancing Babies" animation for the hit television show, Ally McBeal. The task is to draft a one-sided contract to benefit our client for the attorney's review.
TIP 1 -- No matter how organized and ready you think you are for your first online class, it will be an adventure (even if you've taught this class five times before in a classroom setting).
C. MANAGING AND TEACHING AN ONLINE CLASS This article is being written almost halfway into the semester. So far, the experience has been mostly positive.
1. THE GOOD Many aspects of the online class have been working well. I had 100% attendance (22 students) at the mandatory orientation and detailed the goals and expectations of the class. As the weeks unfolded, the student postings in the Courtroom Bull were insightful and led to further discussion by other students.
Further, the opportunity to update materials in the Lecture Hall each week proved to be invaluable. For example, since antitrust law is an important component of the class, I've been posting select articles on the government's antitrust case against Microsoft as it unfolds.
The team-drafting assignments are always a source of student anxiety. I purposely gave very little guidance on where to find sample contract clauses, in an effort to foster independent research skills. I do tell them that there are contract forms in textbooks on reserve, in library form-books, on the internet, and probably in their desk drawer at home. Since I've used the same method in the traditional class -- with students producing remarkable contracts -- I didn't worry. Paralegal students eventually learn to work through this process. A few days before the contract was due, I received the following encouraging e-mails:
"[Y]ou have the information right under our noses and a lot of us have not even looked."
[Student's name] and I have finally gotten together for our project. She has written some [clauses] and I have written others. We have e-mailed each other and we are viewing each other's work. We will be working on the project all day Monday.
Note: The projects arrived via e-mail attachment as this article was completed. At first glance, they appear to be professionally written. Only one student had difficulty creating an e-mail attachment and instead placed a hard copy in my mailbox on time.
2. THE CHALLENGE
TIP 2 -- Respond QUICKLY to technical glitches and communicate your solutions to students
The following things have happened so far in the class:
* The campus server went down for a few days. RESPONSE -- I printed out and photocopied the weekly reading for students;
* A student's modem was inoperable. She was told by technical support that it would take up to a week to replace. RESPONSE -- I sent an e-mail to the head of technical support to have the student placed on high priority since she is in an online course;
* The Courtroom Bull started posting out of sequence, thus making it difficult to follow the threaded discussion. RESPONSE -- I tried to delete some of the postings. Of course, my tinkering compounded the problem. I immediately went to a faculty technology mentor who created a new discussion board;
* The Jury Box chat room didn't work for a few students. RESPONSE -- I found out from technical support that the students probably did not download the software to use the chat room. I sent the class a group e-mail to this effect; and
* Two students had to drop the course for personal reasons. RESPONSE -- I made sure that their "teammateless" partners found each other to team up for the drafting projects.
Due to the above technical problems and the predicted anxiety over the first drafting project, I called a class status meeting. To announce the meeting, I sent the class a group e-mail, and posted the meeting date and time in the Lecture Hall notes, the Courtroom Bull and on the Announcement page.
At the status meeting, I went over the technical glitches, answered questions on the reading, and gave a pep talk on the drafting assignment. In addition, I scheduled another class meeting to replace the scheduled "Chat Review" for the first exam. The review session is always an important component in my traditional classes. Frankly, I became wary of the chat room's ability to accommodate 20 people in a meaningful, organized discussion on a lot of material.
3. THE LESSON LEARNED
TIP 3 -- Running an online class is a labor of love with technology. You need to expect and adapt to rapid change and detours at any juncture of the class. Events will arise which will be out of your control.
I have gained a newfound appreciation for the challenges facing professors who teach online classes at a distance, and who don't know their students personally. I have looked into video streaming and white board technology as a way such instructors enhance courses and look forward to reading more about their experiences.
I enjoy working with computers and believe that they offer unlimited potential in the university setting. I intend to offer Contracts & Torts online again, but in a form that I call an "Online Hybrid." The class will have a format similar to that detailed above. However, there will be several scheduled on-campus meetings throughout the semester.
I intend to continue growing as an instructor with technology, and the unique ways it enhances teaching and learning styles.
II. THE ADMINISTRATIVE MANAGEMENT ONLINE COURSE EXPERIENCE -- Benita Moore
Many thoughts went through my mind before I ever put anything on paper. I had taught the course several times so I was familiar with what I wanted the students to accomplish in this class, yet I wasn't sure how the class objectives could be accomplished without a traditional classroom setting. I revisited the class objectives and the required activities and began to think of non-traditional ways of achieving class objectives.
TIP 4 -- Think through the entire course and think of ways you can accomplish the course objectives with online activities instead of in class activities. It will be helpful if you have the luxury of teaching the class in a traditional setting while mulling over the online class. It is imperative that you do not compromise the quality of the class, so the online activities that you substitute are important.
B. DESIGNING AND PREPARING FOR AN ONLINE CLASS Since the class still needs to be offered as a traditional class as well as an online class, the activities of online students and traditional students had to be comparable. The OFFC 3110 syllabus and class calendar on my web page show the requirements for both the traditional and online classes (http://tech.clayton.edu/bmoore). I also determined it best to teach the class as a traditional class while also offering an online section during the same semester--this method is working well. I took the approach of keeping all the activities for the traditional class but giving the online students options for activities. For example, in this class I have about six guest speakers throughout the semester. These speakers add much to the class as they validate what is being presented in the textbook and expose students to real world experiences as the text and I cannot do.
I have developed a comparable activity for each of these speakers. I believe if a student does this activity in lieu of hearing the guest speaker, then he/she will supplement and validate what is in the text. For example, students in this class are required to complete a personality inventory, which is on the web. I then have a speaker come in to talk about different personality groups, the importance of each personality group, what a manager needs to know about these personality traits, how to group personalities together to have the most effective team, etc.
In lieu of hearing the speaker, I have each online student get three additional people to complete the personality inventory and then discuss the results in a short paper. The paper should include each individual's personality code, his/her personality code, strengths and weaknesses of these personality traits, how these people would work as a team, etc. To obtain this information, they must read information on the different personality traits and codes, which are items that the speaker covers.
TIP 5 -- Be creative in ways students can accomplish class objectives. It may require talking to other faculty or working with support services staff members on campus to accomplish the objectives.
While setting up the online course, I linked my chapter notes from the textbook to the syllabus as well as linked a detailed explanation of each assignment. On the syllabus, I listed each chapter that we would cover and then linked the notes to the appropriate chapter. I then linked specific requirements for each of these assignments in the Grading Assignments portion of the syllabus. By doing this, each student would know what was expected of him/her and would know the weight each assignment carried toward the course grade.
One challenge presented in this class was the lab activity. Although we do not dissect animals in this course, it does have a lab component. Because understanding communication and personalities is so vital for a successful manager, I decided to use threaded discussions and group activities to accomplish my lab objectives. I begin a lab by "throwing out" a statement or question on the threaded discussion. Each student is required to respond. When students respond, they indicate their name and the group to which they are assigned. After each student responds individually to my statement or question, the groups must get together and finish the assignment, which stems from the individual responses given.
Groups may get together in person, via e-mail, on a chat room established for my class, or any way that all group members participate. By having individual responses, group activities lend themselves to interesting discussions, which in turn cause students to deal with a variety of personalities and communication processes. I am also using case studies in some of the lab exercises and using threaded discussions to accomplish these objectives. Each student must respond individually to the case study and then the groups discuss the responses to come up with an appropriate group response.
One of my biggest challenges was determining how students would make an online oral presentation. For this task, I gave the student the choice of coming to class and making the presentation or submitting a videotape of his/her presentation. The tape would be played in class and critiqued by others. Since hearing and evaluating other class members' presentations is part of the class objectives, the online student who does not make a presentation in class must evaluate the taped presentations of other members.
TIP 6 -- If you use groups, I have found it best to determine group composition toward the beginning of the semester. This ensures student exposure to a variety of personalities and communication styles. I have also found the threaded discussions to be helpful in accomplishing lab goals.
C. MANAGING AND TEACHING AN ONLINE CLASS If covering the material isn't enough of a challenge, keeping up with the paperwork and records certainly can be. The first challenge came when students could not attend the orientation session. Instead of repeating it over and over, I decided to record my orientation session on a cassette tape and then duplicate the tape for students who were unable to attend the session. This ensured that I covered all the topics for everyone and also kept me from having to repeat myself (it also was a time-saver for me). Students liked this because they could listen to the cassette to/from work.
Another challenge involved letting online students know their grades via e-mail in a confidential manner. I assigned each student a three-digit code (the middle three numbers in his/her social security number--but I did not tell them this). When I completed grading an assignment I e-mailed the grades to them using the code. I gave each student his/her code at the first test session. Prior to doing this I asked students if they objected and if it was secure enough; they were fine with this system.
Returning papers is another issue. Students want to see papers after they are graded to see what they missed. This also presents a challenge for an online class. My solution was to set up a file folder for each student and place graded papers in the appropriate folder. I keep these in my office so when students come by I (or a secretary)can give the student his/her folder. All the work I've graded is in the folder for him/her to see and take.
My last "administrative" challenge was with the article reviews. I normally require a copy of the article that the student reviews, but that's a little hard when the student submits his/her review via e-mail. I've asked the student to copy the article and hold it in case I choose to collect it. If I do want to see the article, he/she can fax it to me.
TIP 7 -- E-mail students weekly with "administrative" information such as how to see tests and graded materials, what to do if you didn't make orientation, etc. I have found e-mailing students to be a very effective way to communicate. By having a copy of my e-mail, I am able to remember what they have been told and what I need to tell them. Students may also print a copy of the e-mail for future reference.
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