By Marilyn J. Ellis
Distance learning is on the rise because of its flexibility for students and its lower costs for schools and businesses. If you haven’t yet taught an online class, it is likely that you will get such an assignment in the near future.
I taught a computer networking essentials class for more than two years. The class was presented as a distance learning, Internet-based course and was also taught in the classroom. In this article, I will explain what to add to your teaching plan and how to revise existing elements to make a successful move from the classroom to the Internet.
How to alter your teaching style to fit a Web format
There are several key areas instructors must consider when moving from a classroom setting to a Web-based class. Simple adjustments in an instructor’s approach and routine can contribute a lot to the success of an online class.
Setting dates for events, exams, etc., is a critical front-end process. A calendar with due dates for homework, exams, and projects must be in place when the student first checks in online. This calendar must stay the same throughout the course. There is no flexibility of scheduling as in a classroom, because students may not check their e-mail for changes for several days.
Preparation starts with online tools. Knowing how to set them up is critical to the class’ success. To organize my online classes, I used WebCt, an online course-management system used by colleges and universities. WebCT has built-in chat, e-mail, bulletin boards, references areas, online exams, a calendar of events, and many other tools, such as student pages and presentation areas. The WebCT management system preparation must be completed, along with preparing regular course materials, before the class starts.
This is just as critical for students and instructors in Internet training as it is in the classroom. A communication tool that worked well for me was mandatory chat. It not only helped to establish a rapport between the students and me, but it also helped the students bond with one another and to feel like they were in a class.
The daily logistics of an Internet class differ from the logistics used in a traditional classroom to keep students on track. My strategy was a “push-pull” effort.
The “push” was weekly homework assignments that made up a percentage of the final grade and had to be turned in on time for the student to get credit. Also, online exam dates were posted online, and it was mandatory to take them when scheduled.
To “pull” the class together, I got students to begin organizing themselves into groups for their group projects as early as the initial chat session, even though the project was not due until the end of the semester. Such early bonding among the students can lower the dropout rate, because they feel more like a class.
Giving students the opportunity to choose their own topics instills independence and creativity and helps keep the group on track. My students not only met the class criteria by the deadline, but some students also went beyond what was required for the course. For example, one group in data communications chose to build and install a local area network at home, even though implementation was not a course requirement. This would not have been possible in the classroom setting.
Classes can visit local networking companies or computer manufacturers to witness implementation of what they are studying. Many of my students said their tour was the high point of the class.
Limitations of distance learning
Distance learning has many benefits for both students and instructors; however, it does have its weak points as well.
One drawback to distance learning is lack of face-to-face communication. Instructors must be innovative in working around this problem. With no instructor present, students must be able to read and comprehend the text on their own and, if questions come up, must wait for answers by e-mail. Even if an instructor supplies written notes or responds to e-mail queries, there is no way to look at the student’s face to see if the fog has lifted. The closest thing students have to face-to-face contact is a mandatory chat session.
Another drawback is that students must be very mature to handle an Internet class. If they are not self-motivated and don’t have the desire to learn on their own, they should enroll in a traditional class instead. I always made this clear at orientation and in the written orientation notes that were posted in WebCT.
Which one works best for what subjects?
Any topic that requires a lot of hands-on training is best taught in a lab situation so that the instructor is present to show the student what to do. If the class is mostly knowledge-based, the topic is a good candidate for Internet or distance learning.
Have you presented a class in both classroom and online formats? What changes did you make? What worked best online and what worked best live? Send us your thoughts about the differences between online and classroom teaching.
Marilyn J. Ellis, MCSE, has a master’s of science degree in occupational education with a specialization in training and development that included graduate courses taught with various distance-learning techniques. From January 1998 through July 2000, she taught data communications at Tomball College in Tomball, TX, using both online and traditional methods.