"ALT + CTRL + DEL = Successful Online Learning"
Successful online instruction is like warm booting the computer to prepare for the creative work that follows. Pressing ALT + CTRL + DEL clears the computer's memory, reloads the operating system, checks for viruses and other glitches, and leaves a clean, organized desktop--a fresh start and an invitation to learning. Key concepts in this article address ALT = alternatives, CTRL = controls, and DEL = deliverables and several variations possible with each as practiced in a Web-based community college course, "Intermediate Internet and Web Techniques."
The "warm boot" metaphor speaks not only about renewed online pedagogy, but also about how each student can create one's own individualized plan for success in a 12-week all-online asynchronous Web-based community college class called "Intermediate Internet and Web Techniques." The class has been offered online for three years now using the ETUDES (Easy To Use Distance Education Server) Web-based course management template, designed by Michael Loceff, of Foothill College. Following are some descriptions of ALT + CTRL + DEL within this online environment, followed by tips from best practices over the past three years:
ALT: ALTERNATIVES FOR DIVERSE LEARNERS
Diverse learners in this class have included teens, retired teachers, students from several states, and local college students seeking degrees. Computer and Internet backgrounds range from beginning to advanced, skills from physically handicapped to super typist, academic background from an elective found on the Internet to matriculation in the community college degree program, interest level from moderate to highly motivated because of vocational preparation, and commitment level from passive to enthusiastically proactive! Some students are mature learners with jobs, families, and other classes, while others are just taking electives. Some are task oriented and want to work on their own, while others are more gregarious and loquacious online and want to interact with classmates over current topics of discussion. And some just want to find out what they might have missed as they have taught themselves to surf early on!
Options for flexibility are important, especially since this may be the first online course somebody is taking. As the course is created with curriculum, instructional design, online pedagogy, limitations of medium, and diverse learning styles of students in mind, with the online layout set up in its entirety before the class starts, there need to be built-in options for flexibility for both instructor and learners. Students want to know what the course will be about (i.e., topics covered, instructor's style, amount of interactive participation required, level of skills needed, how grading takes place, timeframes and deadlines, amount of freedom, etc.), and the instructor wants to know who the students are (what are their goals for the class, backgrounds, skills, online experience, etc.). This friendly curiosity starts the negotiation interaction strategies!
ALT 1: Send a preclass survey to students by e-mail as soon as they register for the class, welcoming them, telling them a little about the course, and asking for their computer/Internet background and their goal for the course. This serves as input as to whether remedial preparation is needed, if there is a match between the course and what the student is seeking, and as an alert to what the student is really there for. A prompt instructor reply keeps the conversation going through several rounds before class starts officially, in order to establish communication with the student and to inform them how to access the (password protected) Website classroom.
Throughout the quarter I check back to what students told me they wanted to learn in the class in their preclass survey (e.g., I want to know everything about making an HTML Web page, I want to know how to find things fast using search engines, I want to get a job as a Webmaster, I want to teach over the Internet, I really want to get an A in this class, etc.), and make sure "we" stay on target through individual coaching, examples, reference resources, acknowledgment of progress, and tips and hints.
ALT 2: Open the Website early. As new online learners need some time to adjust to the cyberenvironment, I open Website access as soon as they register for the class (in some cases, this may be several weeks before the class starts and may coincide with the concluding weeks of a similar class in session, so check that there is a separate "new" class for them to access). Students will read the syllabus and other information online in the class and can take the online orientation to ETUDES at their own pace. They are encouraged to e-mail, call, or drop by at the office (if they are local) to ask any questions or see a demonstration.
Students are invited to submit the first assignment in ETUDES (I use 3 questions such as "What do you feel is a big issue regarding the Internet?", "What do you hope to learn in this class?" and "Have you taken other classes over the Internet and what has been your experience?") and thank them for their submission as a comment, wishing them continued success in the class. They are also invited to post their introductions into the online classroom discussion area, where I have already posted my self-intro and welcome to the class. As they see others entering, the "ice is broken" and learning begins!
ALT 3: Offer various ways to earn points. While true learning is intrinsic, it helps students to see the rewards of their efforts by earning points for their work, which translates into their course grade. I set the course up so that there is a mix of graded homework assignments based on text reading and application, discussion participation in the all-class area on current Internet topics and issues, small group work processes and products, individual research and preparation of project, and testing. Students know that 90% of total points available will get them an A, 80% a B, and 70% a C and they can choose where to put their energies and follow their interests, while ETUDES keeps a record of their accumulated points.
ALT 4: Allow multiple timeframes to coexist. In the class we work "alone but together." While there is much that the student can do alone and on an accelerated, normal, or slowed down timeframe, there are time-sensitive projects that involve other people (e.g., preparation and delivery of a team teach-in, or an all-class discussion), and students are encouraged to be sensitive to cooperative learning and to participate whenever possible to keep the sense of learning community.
Students come online any 3 days per week and need to check the announcement area, which is updated every 3 days. Each student then follows an individual pattern of dropping off homework assignments, reading discussions that have taken place since they were online last, posting their discussion comments, reading and printing off the new lecture, and participating in the small group activities. Depending on each student's goals, timeframe, and plan of action for that session, they will all alternate among the tasks, leaving their footprints and comments to be checked daily by the instructor. Additionally, students are encouraged to check in by e-mail or private message (within ETUDES) on a regular basis with the instructor to touch bases. (If they are not online for 5 days, they get a reminder from me and a question as to whether there are any problems).
CTRL: BUILD IN CONTROLS FOR BOTH LEARNER AND INSTRUCTOR
Who is in charge of the online learning experience? The instructor, who designs the course, can offer structure, reliability, consistency, fairness, guidelines, norms, assessment, and follow-up to students fading away or off on a tangent. Class structure includes learning objectives, grading criteria, assignments, testing, and attendance requirements. Students want to know what is expected and what the parameters of structure are, so that they can be creative within and outside these "boundaries." They want to be able to count on the instructor and the course to stay consistent, fair, and interesting.
In self-directed, individualized learning, the individual in a learning situation masters one's own education, with the instructor taking a secondary role as facilitator, coach, advisor, co-expert, and encourager. In an online class, most of the material is available upfront, with only the controls of timing buttons to release a lecture, assignment or test to hold back an enthusiastic student. With too many options available, students often appreciate some structure imposed by the instructor so they don't have to "think too hard," as some students have shared with me, because they are so busy in other demanding areas of their lives.
CTRL 1: Put the student at the center of the learning experience. They can choose when to come online (our norm is 3x a week), how fast to go through the class, when to read or participate or post, and how much time to spend on the class. The individual can set the browser preferences at will, changing the appearance of an instructor-designed online exercise. Likewise, when a student is having technical difficulties, s/he feels disempowered and temporarily "out of control." The tip here is to empower the student early on so that personal decisionmaking will assist in the learning process and students learn to troubleshoot and accept their ups and downs as part of the package.
CTRL 2: Let peers offer social controls. As the online student is working with classmates within a learning community, there are Netiquette controls of social learning in place by the norms that evolve. Group dynamics may vary from whole-class interactions to those in a small team. Either way, I ask students to compare their participation with that of other teams in the midterm self-reflection so that they see a context for their work and processes with other people, not just focus on task and content.
CTRL 3: Control design, delivery, and facilitation of the online class benevolently. In the course requirements described in the syllabus are assessments, handling attendance variations online, accepting work outside of deadlines, and in the choice of projects undertaken. The way an instructor crafts course interactions through skillful facilitation and online presence may be subtle, such as in the private messages or comments on assignments that speak candidly yet kindly to the student. However, this "cybermodeling" helps to shape the form of the class and provides a reliable environment that helps learners feel at ease when they know what to expect.
When a student understands the various forms of control, s/he may feel more creative and empowered working either within the parameters or outside the limits of these controls.
DEL: DELIVERABLES DESIGNED FOR THE REAL WORLD
Offer a variety of choices of real-world deliverables and projects to make course content relevant in context for each learner, such as including individual research reports and Web pages, team Webrings and teach-in discussion facilitation, and collaborative large-group discussion sharing current Internet-related topic news. As our college sits right in the middle of Silicon Valley, many of our students are preparing themselves for new jobs involving computers and the Internet. They want to learn what it's really like "out there," and there is nothing like feedback from former students to bridge the gap!
DEL 1: Invite each student to pursue a research question related to a current issue or topic involving the Internet (e.g., privacy, multimedia copyrights, e-commerce). Gathering timely information from credible sources, using proper electronic citations, and addressing current copyright issues is a practical form of information gathering for the real world. The "paper" takes the form of a Webpage project using HTML coding and intermediate Internet techniques, which the students learn from tutorials, textbook, lecture notes, and discussion interchanges with each other.
DEL 2: Ask each student to choose a virtual team with whom to create a class project. Topics are broad, such as multimedia, troubleshooting, or contemporary issues involving Internet. The team is coached and nurtured by me as they decide on their functional structure, roles, collaborative strategies, and a timeline. The deliverable is a team teach-in, often involving a team Webpage or part of a class Webring, some lecture notes for peers, and each classmate leading a part of the discussion in the large class posting area.
The real-world aspects of virtual teams working with current issues and applying intermediate Internet and Web techniques are valuable in that technically prepared Web designers need to know how to deal with others in both virtual and real-time environments, not only to divide up the work but also to face various communication and learning style preferences head on and negotiate alternatives.
DEL 3: Ask each student to complete a self-reflection on their learning experience to date at midterm and final exam times. They will indicate areas of new strengths and times when opportunities were missed to learn from others or to apply their learning to new tasks at hand. As there are no right or wrong answers, each student is encouraged to take a realistic look at individual performance and deal with the positives and negatives. Because time management and technique are so critical for the researching and completion of Web projects, students do a pretty good job of assessing themselves objectively and suggesting revised courses of action for themselves to follow.
Successful online learning happens when students are deeply interested and busy with practical tasks and social processes that relate theory, content, tasks, and the real world (as confronted through daily news, feedback from other students, and observations in their own work environments). Success may be measured by students' completing the course satisfactorily, feeling they have learned something practical that can be used in their new work.
Just as a computer is "warm booted" so as to start fresh, so is the online course in intermediate Internet and Web techniques "warm booted" iteratively each quarter, as feedback from the student self-reflections about what worked (and what didn't) comes in, together with the quarter's array of what the class had produced collectively. The student upload area is rich with projects that have been successfully completed, and students have admitted that they had learned a great deal and were able to use it, after all. The instructor as research-practitioner then designs the next iteration of the course, to be ready for the new flock of registrants, with new goals, needs, and interests. The symbolic reloading of operating system software on the computer through ALT + CTRL + DEL is a reminder to us instructors that three important aspects of student success involve alternatives for diverse learners, controls for both the learner and the instructor, and deliverables for the real world.
Bonk, C.J., & Cummings, J.A. 1998. "A dozen recommendations for placing the student at the centre of Web-based learning," _Educational Media International,_ 35(2), 82-89.
Bonk, C.J., & Dennen, V. 1999. "Teaching on the Web: With a little help from my pedagogical friends,"
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