Monday, May 16, 2005

Community Part III: Live Chat Classes

Imported from my old Online Education blog

Live chat is the "classroom" part of class. At CTU the instructor has an audio feed that the rest of the students can listen to and all participants (students and instructor) have text-chat capabilities. The client was created with Macromedia Flash and has some multimedia features like the whiteboard that allows the instructor to draw figures on the screen. Control can also be passed to one or more students so they can draw as well. All of the sessions are recorded so students that could not attend the live session can review the content later. I am not sure if the whiteboards are recorded or saved or anything since they don't get used very much and I usually attend class pretty well so I don't need to review the content much.

I mentioned in Part II that this would be a lot more fun. I was really trying to say that the Live Class Chats were pretty fun but even this is not entirely accurate since it depends a lot on the instructor. Naturally, if the professor has a dull monotone voice and reads from the textbook, things are not going to be very exciting. On the other hand, if he starts out the class by playing the classic "Let's get ready to RUUUMBLLLLLLEEE" audio clip then the chances are good that the class will be a blast.

In my opinion, the best instructors guide the discussion more than they dominate it. Obviously, Algebra is not a very controversial subject so there is not a lot of room for debate but topics like software development (including design and programming) and network engineering can certainly stir up some religious fervor. Good facilitators present ideas that the students can use as a springboard for further discussion and they ask questions that lead students to discuss together. During the discussion, the instructor may offer help if the group is stuck on something or may present an angle that the students did not think of on their own. There are times when even the greatest instructors have to lecture though but even they allow the students to interject different ideas or alternatives. Sometimes the student is wrong but that is all part of the learning process.

I have not had any really bad instructors and I hope it stays that way. There have been some that were a bit less than average though and I would like to discuss some traits that instructors need to have so that if any other online professors see this then they might learn from us.

Know Your Tools
Please learn how to use your equipment and the software tools. I have seen (well, heard) instructors that could not adjust their microphones so that certain noises caused blasts of static on the students' end. It wouldn't hurt to have tested the microphone and the audio settings and learn how to adjust it so that the static could be avoided and if the problem was with the hardware then it should have been replaced. (The static lasted about all session – six weeks!) I don't know if this was a training issue or something but there was another professor that seemed to have a lot of trouble using the chat tools. This teacher avoided the use of the whiteboard due to lack of knowledge about the controls.

Leverage Student Experience
Many students in the online environment are already working in a field related to the degree they are pursuing. I am a software developer and have been working professionally in software development for over ten years. The main reason I attend classes is to provide alternate viewpoints and help out other students that might be new to programming. If there are people attending the chats that really don't need to be, chances are they are there to help. Take advantage of this! One way to do this is to encourage us to contradict you. This spurs us to present different angles on the topic and can really get a good dialog going in the class. Another thing to do is to ask controversial questions in the class and let the students debate the issue. The more experienced students will take the lead at first but the others will join in pretty quickly. Students are more likely to ask useful questions of other students, their peers, rather than the instructor; if there is a good class-time debate then the instructor really has some material to work with towards guiding us in the right direction.
I am not trying to say that we should get together in the chat room and party like its IRC or something but if the students enjoy meeting they will show up more often and the entire learning experience will be better for it.

Thursday, May 5, 2005

Community Part II: Group Projects

Imported from my old Online Education blog

Wow, it's kind of a good thing I did not get to this topic until now. I just finished two simultaneous group projects and it was rough. It ought to be though, the group projects generally count for 20-25% of our final grade in a course.

Each course has at least one group project. The instructor assigns about five people to each group and the group works out how they are going to work together on their own. The resources available to them on the virtual campus are discussion boards and logged chat sessions. If not all students can attend a particular chat, the results are archived for future review by anyone in the group. The group discussion boards are also limited to the individual groups. Email and off-campus chat can also be used but it is important that instructors can gauge the level at which each of the group members participated as individual grades are assigned to each person for overall performance.

When I first found out about group projects I thought it would be great if the group succeeded or failed as a group. It was not long before I found out how bad of an idea that was. Individual participation in group projects can vary widely. Some instructors make an effort to identify students that participate in class more than others and group them together. This did not work so well in our last session because two group projects were scheduled side-by-side and most students are in the same two classes. Both instructors made special efforts to ensure that people were grouped according to their participation level but there really isn't any way to take into account their levels of involvement in the other class. As a result of spending more time working on and helping some students in one project the other suffered. I'll see just how much it suffered when I get the grade' hopefully I managed to pull it out in the end.

I have a couple other problems with group projects. For one, they certainly don't correspond to real-life group projects. In real life you have a job and even if you're working with a team spread all over the world, the employer generally provides communication methods that are tied to the workplace. You get phones, email, etc. and when you leave for the day you can leave your work with you. In the school environment you have to give out your home phone number if you want or need to speak with other students. I don't know about you but I am very uncomfortable with handing out my personal email address, much less my home phone number. Another thing that exists in real world group projects is a fairly common schedule. Sometimes you need to adjust the work schedule if you have international coworkers or something but when it comes to adjusting the school schedule at the expense of the work schedule, that just ain't gonna happen. When it comes down to it, coordination of group projects is usually a nightmare.

I do like the concept behind the group projects and it does help encourage the community spirit of higher education but I don't think the good outweighs the bad at this early juncture in my online university experience. Sure, it is important to learn how to work together as a group, share responsibility, and mentor others. This environment does not really teach these concepts though and just engenders frustration in the process.

I tried really hard to pull something positive out of the whole group project thing but I have not had an experience with it that I can call good yet, fair maybe but not good. I think that it could be a good, if not excellent, experience but that would require some amazing team coordination and that is very difficult to achieve. The Live Chat topic should be a lot more fun so see you then.