1999 Paper Presentations
WEB-BASED INSTRUCTION: COMMON MISTAKES AND HOW TO AVOID THEM
Dale Mueller, LTU Extension; University of Phoenix <email@example.com>
This paper is a personal and anecdotal reflection on scores of observed launchings of cyberclassrooms by the most well intentioned teams of authors, instructors, and designers. Although the body of literature on best practices in electronic distance learning is still new and recent, there are some common themes where educators are in basic agreement. Themes for course construction and facilitation that are often found in journal literature are, for example, that of letting the content and purpose of the course guide the form and function, supporting interactivity features in that learning is a social process, and keeping the technology requirements within the realistic grasp of the intended audience. This paper presents a summary of observations regarding what happens in practice, once these and other themes have been read, assimilated, and acted upon by the development team.
While it is not the intent of this author to detract from the rigors of scientific study, it is important to note that pioneers throughout history have based their own important preparations for the upcoming journey on anecdotal evidence presented by those who had made the journey at least once prior. Thus it is with this paper. Having made the journey not once by many times, anecdotal evidence is accumulating to describe particular bumps in the process where mistakes often occur. The ideas contained in this paper are a result of reflections taken from over five years of online field experience, and from the vantage points of roles performed by this author at various times such as instructor, course author, web mistress, instructional designer, and faculty mentor.
Information that this author has identified here is presented collegially and openly, with the hope that it will assist both new and experienced online faculty to create the best learning environment possible, and the best academic outcomes possible, for our students engaged in online distance learning.
This author hopes that discussion regarding individual experiences and alternative recommendations or solutions will be forthcoming, and of course are most welcome. The categories that are presented here for the reader's consideration are grouped by activity, in that by doing so ready solutions may become more readily apparent or more easily anticipated.
1. WARP SPEED
The meaning of appropriate instructor response time has been redefined in the online medium. In contrast to the on-ground classroom, where instructors have the luxury of returning examination papers upon the next class meeting, students in online classrooms have come to expect that instructor responses occur with minimum delay. Through the employ of some types of software, exams can be scored instantaneously without human intervention, and students can be electronically guided to supplemental study information in pre-programmed modules. What student experiences are now influencing their expectations of instructor behavior as well. An emerging online culture is redefining "quick turnaround" and "response time." Although one week between face-to-face meetings can be the norm in on-ground classes, over twenty-four hours between e-mail responses is often considered a sign of an inattentive instructor in the online environment, in the eyes of the students. Instructors and the technology being used by them in online classes should be sensitive to the daily electronic touch. Respond to student issues, questions, and coursework submissions within 24 hours. Agree on a time zone for point of reference, if timeliness becomes an issue, as midnight to a student in London occurs at a different time, obviously, as midnight to a student in Mexico City.
A little diligence and skill applied to techniques of writing notes and responses can make a big difference in a student's ability to track a discussion in the text-based classroom. When discussions are text-based, whether synchronous or asynchronous, the content of the discussion can easily slip into obscurity if participants are not diligent with threading techniques that appropriately tie each response to the intended previous comment. Threading a discussion, or responding to text-based notes, is a craft in itself, and should be taught to students in an introductory session or orientation class prior to introducing the challenge of actual course content. Students should have the opportunity to receive an orientation, or an instructor led demonstration of this threading technique, where the respondent selects pertinent information from the original note .. not too much and not too little .. but just enough to identify the context of the response, then types his or her reply comment. This technique is quite the same as the accepted "netiquette" often used with e-mail replies, now applied to online classroom discussions. Where this attention to threading is omitted, the context of the course dialog gets very bumpy and difficult to follow; subsequently, a lack of flow obscures the content of the discussion. Instructors should brief their students on how to thread a discussion note for continuity, and instructors can role model this threading technique with their own notes in classroom discussions.
3. A PICTURE IS WORTH..LESS AND LESS!
It is tempting to load graphic images onto an otherwise text-based and seemingly plain Web page, if for no other reason than to liven things up a bit. With the commercial advent of affordable and relatively easy to use web creation software, more and more elaborate web pages are finding their way onto classroom pages. It is tempting to put photos or other graphics onto a web page, but not all graphics are worth a thousand words, and many are not worth the load time. Choose the use of image carefully. If instructors desire to place their photo on the web page, as this is often the case, here is one instance where a web designer can provide a valuable assist by flattening images through use of a graphics software program. By reducing the color demand of gif files, the overall load time of the material to the student is reduced as well, with little overall loss of quality given the resolution of most computer monitors. For those instructors who are used to creating their own web pages on an amateur basis, avoid the temptation to place graphics on the screen unless the images serve an instructional purpose. Review graphics, if any, that are chosen by web designers on the team, and be sure that images support the course content and are therefore necessary. Choose illustrations carefully, and flatten images where possible, as a lengthy load time is an annoying experience for the student. If photos must be present in the digital form received, consider unbundling the photos from the course material by placing on a separate yet linked page, so students can view as a matter of choice.
4. ALL ALONE IN A CROWDED ROOM
Online classrooms may have, for example, 30 or 50 or even 100 participants, yet the class experience emerges as a dyad between the individual student and the instructor. While learning can indeed take place in such an environment, the online classroom need not mimic the confines of the traditional distance learning relationship, where student and instructor kept up correspondence until the course material was exhausted. The online classroom can be a lively place where networking between students can take place, but this rarely occurs without some facilitation either electronically in classroom design or by facilitation techniques introduced by the instructor in classroom management. If the course assignments do not require students to work in teams or groups, many adults nevertheless appreciate a means to network or otherwise work collegially with their peers on a purely social basis. Instructors can create an environment that at minimum allows students to post a brief biography or other information about themselves, and a means for students to contact one another if desired. At best, classes for adults that incorporate interactivity and collegiality not only provide enhancements to the liveliness of the classroom, these interactive classrooms take better advantage of the features of online learning that differentiate the online distance learner from the traditional and isolated distance learner.
5. THE ECLIPSE OF CONTENT
Web designers often want to try the latest and greatest technology, as this represents an opportunity to showcase their expertise with web based media. Web-based courses, however, should be treated apart from other assignments in web-design, as the use of more sophisticated technology, such as the requirements of plug-ins or use of the latest browser or fastest modems may inadvertently exclude a segment of students who are otherwise eager to learn. Likewise, audio files, attachments, and files requiring special software to be viewed should be chosen for their contribution to the learning experience and advancement of the course objectives and not for their technological appeal. Course authors and instructors should preview all formatting, design, and function suggestions made by the technological support team to make sure the learning objectives will be enhanced and not inadvertently obscured.
6. HELP DESK
It can happen that the biggest barriers to student success in the online classroom are the frustrations students experience with basic computer functions, such as saving, attaching or viewing a file, navigating to various sections of the classroom environment, or even getting a modem to connect properly. Clearly, these functions are apart from course content, yet deserve attention from the faculty and development team, since these barriers prohibit student success. Often the technological support that is offered to students is accessible during business hours, or otherwise at limited times, if at all. A consideration regarding technical support for online programs is simply this: the appeal of online programs is the any time, any where promise of access. Either technical support should be made available at the times that most students will be using the online classroom, or attempts should be made to require the least complex software and hardware, or a combination of both of these solutions. Additionally, technical support personnel should receive adequate orientation to the types of problems that students are likely to experience, and have some form of troubleshooting plan available. With some institutions, the technical support offered consists of students enrolled in computer studies who are staffing the help desk as part of an internship or lab arrangement with the school. Students enrolled in online programs are likely to be unsatisfied with technical support personnel who are themselves uninformed or untrained. An investment in online classrooms is also worth an investment in technical support, with personnel trained to assist with common problems, attentive to students who are otherwise unfamiliar with computer terminology, and in need of assistance.
7. READIN' AND WRITIN'
Without a doubt, spelling has not been the measure of a great instructor in the past, and most assuredly there are many great instructors who depend on phonetic spelling, even now. It is difficult to convince a classroom of online learners that this same instructor is indeed brilliant if lectures delivered in text are misspelled or grammatically incorrect. In the traditional onground classroom, use of phonetic spelling for personal reference on lecture notes could be a helpful technique. However, in the online text-based classroom, grammar and spelling take on an entirely new importance in the students' hierarchy of judging instructor competency. Fortunately, this increased exposure for brilliant instructors who cannot spell is tempered by the accessibility of spellcheck utility programs, another very positive technological contribution to online learning and communication.
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