Thursday, February 10, 2005

Online Education: Matching Context, Content and Technology

Since I grew up on a ranch in Wyoming, a recent New York Times article on online education in Colorado described a very familiar environment of a dying town, with few people and wide open spaces, but which is now thriving by providing an online public school. Enrollees include not just rural students for whom access to the Internet reduces isolation and provides additional resources, but also sick children and those who can't attend bricks and mortar schools. Fast forward to Silicon Valley where I now live and teach classes at San Jose State University in the School of Library and Information Science. Though I enjoy teaching, I've been a dropout for years because it required being in a fixed place at a fixed time for a fixed number of weeks, which didn't work with my life. Now technology has changed that paradigm for the better from both my perspective and my students. Classes are primarily online, and my students can be located anywhere, include one in Hong Kong this semester.

My classes are taught using BlackBoard, which is remarkably useful for organizing, communicating and administering courses. Admittedly there is an adjustment in teaching style, but my other life requires a lot of email and communicating around the world, so using threaded discussion groups is simply an extension. My course materials include my Word document lectures, but also include video clips, links to websites and ebooks. And yes, my two required textbooks are print books. My students are quite happy with the book from Information Today supported by a website for updates, and not so happy with a traditional book from Greenwood Publishing which lacks all those features.

Not only do I have to adjust to teaching online, but my students also have to adjust. They have to become comfortable with "chatting" online, instead of classroom discussions, so online participation is a significant part of their grades. The course is structured with weekly assignments with corresponding discussion boards, much like a weekly homework assignment. They use a digital Drop Box to send me assignments, and I quickly learned to make onscreen corrections, rather than dealing with reams of paper. In addition, I've observed that online teaching is best in some contexts, and not in others. There are no face to face meetings for my online searching class and this works well, but my introductory class in Information and Society has a few onsite class meetings. Presentation skills are important in professional development, and technology is not a good answer for that experience, so back to the classroom! Overall, I see the electronic technology is a powerful tool to enable the educational process, overcoming the limitations of time, distance and learning modalities, but must be supplemented with traditional instructional means.
Post a Comment