SUPPORTING STUDENTS AND FACILITATING FACULTY'S ACADEMIC WORK
Numerous authors concur that colleges and universities must assess and provide for learner readiness to engage in online and technology-enhanced courses (Bozarth, Chapman, & LaMonica, 2004; Knowles-Harrigan, 2003; Twigg, 2000). Assessment of learner readiness includes a determination of access to and familiarity with required technology (computer hardware and software) and technical skills. Assessing learner readiness also encompasses the study, communication, time management, and organizational skills necessary for success in an environment where students may rarely “see” each other or their faculty. Assessing and enhancing learner readiness enables students and faculty to work smarter, not merely harder.
From 1999 thru 2004, The University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Nursing was an all-graduate program, offering a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), Doctor of Nursing Science (DNSc), and, in conjunction with the College of Graduate Health Sciences, a Doctor of Philosophy in Nursing (PhD). The MSN and DNSc programs are almost entirely online; students come to the campus in Memphis, Tennessee, for three to five days at the beginning and end of the two terms per year. Approximately 150 students are enrolled in the college’s online courses at any one time. During the 2003-2004 academic year, students are located in the greater Memphis area, throughout many of the states in the USA, and in Canada and Israel. Faculty are located on the main campus as well as in Arkansas, Arizona, Indiana, and Canada. Both faculty and students travel during the academic year to distant and sometimes remote places for various purposes, such as consulting.
Given the diversity in students’ technology skills and the potentially negative effects to the students of limited technology skills and understandings of online coursework, the college designed an extensive orientation for incoming students. Over the years, this orientation has been systematically revised based on student feedback as well as on the review and evaluation of those involved in delivering the orientation. We have found that while ensuring student readiness for online instruction requires considerable investment from faculty, staff, students, and administrators, it better guarantees faculty and student success in teaching and learning.
Description of System
Ensuring student readiness for online learning initially involves setting minimum expectations for technology skills as well as for required hardware/software needed by program applicants. It also entails assessing and enhancing technology skills of newly-admitted students. Once students begin their coursework, it becomes important for faculty to moderate and set expectations, involve students in their learning, and take advantage of the online medium. We will describe the initiatives undertaken to ensure the readiness of program applicants and newly-admitted students.
Prospective Applicant / Interested Individual Phase
The UTHSC’s College of Nursing has developed an extensive system for introducing, orienting, and supporting students in their use of required instructional technologies. The introduction begins when individuals consider attending the college. Clear documentation of the minimum requirements for computer hardware and software for our programs are posted on an easily accessible webpage [http://www.utmem.edu/nursing/admissions/computing.php] in our prospective student section. We also provide a series of webpages to stimulate prospective students to consider their readiness for online learning [http://www.utmem.edu/nursing/admissions/readiness.php].
Given that students are online almost daily, we have modified our minimum hardware recommendations for Internet connectivity to specify the need for a high-speed Internet connection, such as a cable modem, DSL, or satellite. We bold the following sentence about high-speed Internet access in our computing requirements page:
Some faculty use desktop videoconferencing (NetMeeting®) and audio-video conferencing is best delivered and accessed using broadband connections. A commitment of our college, however, is to take qualified students from throughout the United States and the world. Broadband is virtually impossible to access in many regions, even if the user were willing to pay a substantial fee for its use (Butzen & Liston, 2003; Friedman, 2002). For this reason, we limit the teaching/learning activities that would require broadband access, instead favoring to deliver materials via the Web or on a CD-ROM.
Assessing and enhancing prospective students’ technology skills continues when applicants come to campus for an interview with faculty. Instructional technology (IT) staff and currently-enrolled students meet with applicants in a large conference room. Applicants start their interview experience with a demonstration of the college’s course management system (Blackboard ®) provided by IT personnel. Current students discuss their online experiences with applicants, providing the “real scoop” regarding online education in the college. Before they depart after the conclusion of their interviews, applicants are enrolled in a Blackboard course so that, at their leisure, they may familiarize themselves with the features of the system.
Accepted Student Phase
Once accepted into the College, incoming students are enrolled into an online Computing Competencies orientation course that requires hands-on practice with each of the features in Blackboard (e.g., course documents, email, chat, discussion board, digital drop box). Incoming students also complete required competency self-assessments about the adequacy of their hardware and software; their skill level with Windows, Microsoft Office, and the Internet; and their Readiness for Online Learning. Many of these self-assessments may also be accessed at http://www.utmem.edu/uthsc/ . This site, University of Tennessee Helping Students with Computing, was developed using monies from a university small grant program distributed by the Educational Technology Collaborative – Project SET (Sharing Educational Technology). Staff and faculty developed the site, using written documentation and brief movie clips (done in Camtasia ®), about software how-to’s and personal computing basics. In addition, this site also offers information on being an online learner, self-assessments, and external links. Finally, incoming students complete a SmartForce ® computer-based training (CBT) module on Beginning Microsoft Word.
First On-campus Phase
Using their scores from the CBT module, incoming students are divided into beginning or intermediate groups for a day-long, face-to-face orientation session during their first on-campus session. This orientation focuses on instructional technology skill requirements and information literacy. For half the day, the two groups of students have separate hands-on practice with computers, customized for each group. Session leaders review problematic materials from the online orientation and offer the opportunity for practice with techniques in Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
For the other half-day session, the grouped students are in a seminar with IT and nursing faculty and staff. Items discussed during this session include accessing the library, researching on the web, study skills, time management, and the campus honor code. The challenges and idiosyncrasies of asynchronous communication are discussed. Students are advised to give any questionable communication their Most Respectful Interpretation (MRI).
All students come together for a group lunch with a panel of currently-enrolled students who offer tips and suggestions for success in our programs. The panel most often discusses issues related to (1) software; (2) conceptual issues, including managing discussion board discussions, getting the most from your courses, organizing your computer work, and managing chats; (3) university and college listservs; and (4) other “stuff” including computer security, firewalls, spam, antivirus, acceptable use policy, wireless access, and instant messaging.
Because several program options require the use of personal digital assistants (PDAs), IT staff and faculty meet at the end of the day with those students for a beginning orientation to the PDA. While there are recommendations for technical functionality of the PDA, there is no requirement for a specific PDA operating system or for a particular program across all the options. The orientation, therefore, is more of an introduction to how the PDA can assist students in managing their time, organizing their contacts, and synchronizing with their computer.
Ongoing Campus Session Phase
In terms of ongoing support, purposeful face-to-face campus IT sessions are scheduled during students’ quarterly visits to campus. Dedicated college personnel assist students with IT issues, whether on or off-campus. Blackboard is used as an ongoing vehicle for community-building and support among all students, staff, and faculty in the college.
We have gathered feedback about the technology orientation activities from students and faculty beginning with the first class enrolled in the completely online programs. Given these data, we have made ongoing adjustments to improve our technological orientation and support system – beginning with information provided to applicants and including the organization of the orientation programs.
Entering students in July 2003 offered the following feedback about the overall orientation: 83% rated the orientation as somewhat to very organized; 83% noted the information was somewhat to very relevant; 79% felt that their professional needs were adequately to exceptionally met; and 94% believed that the learning resources were somewhat to very effective. In terms of evaluating how well specific objectives were met during the orientation, students offered that the orientation enabled them to adequately or completely demonstrate their:
Students offered several recommendations for enhancing the orientation activities for future students. Most of their suggestions concerned dividing the on-campus sessions into two half-day sessions or four two-hour sessions; distributing more handouts; having smaller groups; conducting the on-campus sessions on day 1 versus day 3 of their first on-campus visit; incorporating more hands-on practice; warning about how long each step of the process will take; and providing feedback upon the receipt of practice activities.
Comments as to the positive aspects of the technology orientation included the following.
Students repeatedly noted that having this sort of technology orientation helped them identify their learning needs with regard to the technology, specifically the software. For example,
As a result of our ongoing support, we find that students are more ready for online education, requiring much less one-on-one support from their faculty or from the College staff. The challenge of keeping up with the technological needs of a diverse group of clients requires continuous fine-tuning.
It is better to provide information and support proactively rather than reactively. Giving students and faculty as much information as they want - and supplementing with just-in-time learning opportunities - focuses their attention on the importance of technology in their teaching and learning without allowing it to distract them from the tasks at hand: teaching and learning.
Students come to the college with vastly different levels of exposure to and comfort with technology. This disparity will likely increase in future years. Engaging students across this range, meeting the needs of experts, intermediate users, and beginners, and providing IT support, is a major challenge for all institutions of higher education.
Bozarth, J., Chapman, D.D., & LaMonica, L. (2004). Preparing for distance learning: Designing an online student orientation course. Educational Technology & Society, 7(1), 87-106. Last accessed online March 17, 2004 at http://ifets.massey.ac.nz/periodical/7_1/10.pdf
Butzen, S., & Liston, C.D. (2003). Rural community colleges and the digital divide. Learning Abstracts, 6(5). Last accessed on March 18, 2004 at http://www.league.org/publication/abstracts/learning/lelabs0305.htm
Friedman, P. (2002). Bridging the rural digital divide. Web Information Network Resources for Welfare Decisions, 6(15). Last accessed online March 18, 2004 at http://www.welfareinfo.org/ruraldigitaldivideRN.htm
Knowles-Harrigan, C. (2003). Toward online success: The creation of a multimedia tutorial product. The Technology Source, May/June. Last accessed online March 17, 2004 at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=936
Twigg, C.A. (2000). Institutional readiness criteria. EDUCAUSE Review, March/April, 42-51. Last accessed online March 17, 2004 at http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/erm0024.pdf
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