USING WEBCT FOR
A COMPUTER LITERACY COURSE: MAKING THE
Judy A. Serwatka
The computer literacy course (CPT 107) at our campus is one that is taken by non-computer majors to increase their knowledge of computers and to teach them how to use the Microsoft Office products. The course is very elementary. We also offer advanced courses in these topics. The distance learning versions of the advanced courses always fill to capacity, so I suggested that we offer this introductory course in the Internet format as well. The enrollment for the first semester was 26 out of a maximum of 28 students, a very good turnout for using an alternative format.
Although some skeptics say that such an introductory course cannot be taught on-line, I feel that it is appropriate for those who have some knowledge of computers and e-mail, but who are unable to test out of the class. Since the Internet is so pervasive in today's society and students are introduced to computers at a young age in the public schools today, offering them this alternative for taking the required computer course is appropriate.
Technology Used in the Course
Purdue University has invested in the WebCT product to enable its faculty to provide on-line learning experiences for students. I used this product during the Fall, 2002 semester for my on-campus courses to provide Powerpoint slides, practice quizzes, homework submission, e-mail and a gradebook. This experience made me confident in my use of this software for the CPT 107 on-line course.
In addition to an on-line syllabus which includes instructor information, reading assignments in a computer literacy book and lab assignments in a Microsoft Office textbook, I have created on-line practice quizzes, provided access to helpful web sites, created on-lines tests, and provided a chat room for on-line office hours. The on-line quizzes give those who are not familiar with the software a chance to see how the test will be administered as well as studying for the test by answering the questions on the quiz. The quizzes are automatically graded and the students are given the correct answers if they gave the wrong answer. When taking the on-line test, the students' scores will be automatically recorded in the on-line gradebook and will be available for viewing.
The web sites that I have included at the beginning of the class include one that gives the students some insight on taking distance learning courses. The site linked to is actually on the distance learning page at Purdue Calumet (http://www.calumet.purdue.edu/distance) under Student Resources. Some of the sites include "Succeeding at Distance Ed" (http://uaaonline.alaska.edu/prospective/suited/summary.html), "Tips for Online Success" (http://www.ion.illinois.edu/IONresources/onlineLearning/tips.html), and "How to Succeed in Distance Learning Courses" (http://www.terra.cc.oh.us/detips.html). These sites include tips for how to take the course, communicating with the instructor, being self-motivated, and other issues related to on-line courses.
In addition, a web site is included to help the students with the Computer Literacy portion of the course. The site is called "Jan's Illustrated Computer Literacy 101" (http://www.jegsworks.com/Lessons/index.html). The site includes graphics, some animations, examples and web links on topics not covered in the textbook that I use. This gives the students a broader range of knowledge on the topic, and is visually stimulating. As a society, we have become very visual oriented and if a student can see a picture of something along with reading about it, the learning experience is more rewarding.
Having taught distance learning courses since 1996, I know the importance of maintaining constant communication with the students. With that in mind, I have always held "on-line" office hours, during which I have my e-mail system on and checking for mail every 10 minutes (usually set up during a 2 hour time period on one evening a week). Since WebCT has a nice Chat facility, I decided to conduct the on-line office hours in the Chat room for this class. As of the writing of this paper, the chat room has not been used extensively by the students. What it gives the students is the confidence to know that the teacher is available for questions or problems.
One of the biggest mistakes made by instructors in on-line courses is the assumption that the students know what they are doing and so checking e-mail is not important, or they forget to respond to e-mail, or simply don't respond to the students' needs. I constantly get comments from students who indicate how much they appreciate the time and effort I take in responding to their questions. Without a classroom in which to interact with others, the students can feel alienated and alone, possibly confused, with no one to contact. As Distance Learning Coordinator at Purdue Calumet (a position I held for 6 years), I was often contacted by students in many disciplines who could not contact their instructors. The instructors would not respond to e-mail and the students were frustrated. In such cases, I would attempt to contact the faculty member in question, and if that failed, I would resort to contacting the Department Head in the department in which the class is offered. For some reason, some faculty don't realize the importance of maintaining contact with the students in the on-line courses.
Comparison to Blackboard
Both Blackboard and WebCT offer similar features, although the Chat feature in Blackboard was not available when I used it at Purdue Calumet. Both systems have an on-line gradebook and have graphical interfaces that are user-friendly for students. When I first started using WebCT, I felt that the construction of tests and quizzes was difficult. The method for creating tests and quizzes in Blackboard was more intuitive, and I could save the individual files in a zipped format to my own computer for backup purposes. I found out in WebCT that we have access to a product called Respondus, provided by the University, that allows one to create the quizzes on a local computer, save them there with the option to print the quiz, and then automatically upload it to the WebCT server very easily. When uploaded to the server, the quizzes are automatically in the correct format and are ready to use as soon as they are made available on the web page.
Purdue also provides training sessions for WebCT and has excellent on-line documentation. Since I could never find time to attend the workshops, I did the self-taught method of learning how to use WebCT. By trying different things and reading on specific topics in the documentation, I was able to learn everything I needed to know about the software within one semester. I always urge faculty to just try the software for their on-campus classes in order to learn it themselves. By using it as an addition to the on-campus class, nothing is lost if something doesn't work well. Then, in the future, the faculty member will feel comfortable using the software in an on-line class, where it really does matter how well it is set up.
Finding Web Sites
One source that faculty can use to find material for on-line courses is Project Merlot (www.merlot.org). Merlot is a repository for URLs in a number of subjects, such as Chemistry, Mathematics, Management, Information Technology and others. The material is submitted by anyone and is reviewed by faculty chosen from universities around the world in the specific discipline. Anyone can use Merlot, either to submit material or to download material to use in a course. The ultimate goal of Merlot is to provide faculty reviews of all the material posted on Merlot. The web site that I am using in my course for Computer Literacy is listed in Merlot under the Business heading.
The material on Merlot can range anywhere from tutorials to simulations to drill and practice. One of the benefits of using Merlot is that the search process is simplified. We have all tried to search the Internet to find suitable topic web sites and have been frustrated by the huge number of sites returned based on the search criteria. With Merlot, the sites are generally not commercial (in other words, they are not trying to sell the product) and have been submitted by someone who believes the sites are useful.
Student Success on On-Line Courses
What motivates these students to choose distance learning? Since we are a commuter campus, many of our students are older, working adults. They have responsibilities associated with their jobs, such as extensive travel or extended working hours. Distance learning allows these students to keep up with their school work, while not jeopardizing their jobs. These students often times also have families and responsibilities that prevent them from attending class on a regular basis. The distance learning courses give them the flexibility to attend to their family and take courses at the same time.
Another motivating factor is the length of time it takes to get a degree. Many of our students take classes only part-time. This means that it will take them many years to complete a degree because they can generally only take 2 classes per semester. By taking one or two distance learning classes per semester, they can significantly reduce the number of years it will take them to complete the desired degree. The distance learning courses do not interfere with other course times and days, and the work can be done according to the student's schedule.
Students who are motivated by the wrong reasons, often do not succeed in the distance learning courses. Such factors include the fact that they don't have to come to campus to attend classes. The same students who do not want to come to class, will often not do their distance learning assignments on time and will not participate in the class discussions that are required. Many students also do not want to face a teacher in person, and they believe that distance learning is the best way to avoid this contact. Such students are often the ones who complain the loudest via e-mail about what they don't like about the class, but will not meet with the instructor in person in his/her office to discuss the problems.
To improve student outcomes in distance learning courses, we must make every effort to advise students correctly. A determination of the students' motivation behind taking the class can often help decide if the student will succeed in a distance learning course. For those who do seem properly motivated, making the class interesting by including group projects, providing plenty of interaction with the instructor, and making the course truly interactive by using the power of the Internet will give the students something to look forward to with the class.
Since this paper has been written far in advance of the end of the semester, more comments on the success of students in this particular course will be available during the on-line discussion/chat session. My experience in distance learning has taught me that there will be some spectacular successes and some dismal failures of students in on-line courses. I have learned that sometimes students must be called on the telephone to remind them that they are taking an on-line course and that they need to keep up with the work. Although these cases are rare, such students generally do not succeed in the on-line course, and they are generally not successful in on-campus courses either.
As more and more courses are offered on-line, students will begin to accept this as just another method of taking a class. The job of the instructor is to use the technology to its fullest extent to make the learning experience a good one and ensure that the students are assessed in a manner that is consistent with the University objectives. If we do that, our distance learning classes will always be a success, no matter what the topic.
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