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Generically, the Virtual Classroom is a teaching and learning environment located within a computer-mediated communication system. Rather than being built of steel and concrete, it consists of a set of group communication and work "spaces" and facilities that are constructed in software. Thus it is a "virtual" facility for interaction among the members of a class, rather than a physical space. Specifically, the Virtual Classroom[TM ]is NJIT's trademarked name for a version of its Electronic Information Exchange System (EIES2) with special software structures designed to support collaborative learning. Participation is generally asynchronous; that is, the Virtual Classroom participants may dial in at any time around the clock, and from any location in the world accessible by a reliable telephone system. The fact that the educational process is asynchronous means each student may engage in more reflective thinking before having to answer or discuss issues.
My collaborator, Murray Turoff (1995) is describing desirable features for a Virtual Classroom[TM] in a separate paper for this conference. For the purposes of this paper, let us simply assume that the minimally acceptable technological foundation is a conferencing system that allows the instructor to set up different conferences for different purposes; and also a "reply" or hierarchical structure for a conference, so that responses to root items become attached to them, and the conference "self-organizes" by topic, rather than being a simply a linear time-ordered sequence of items.
It should also be noted that a Virtual Classroom type of environment can be used successfully in many different media mixes:
Another interesting observation that should serve as preparation for the results and conclusions to be reported below, is that one cannot segregate the "on-campus" and "distance" markets. If students who take most of their courses on campus are permitted to, they will choose to take a significant portion of their courses via a "distance" mode such as Virtual Classroom. This is because they experience scheduling conflicts with other courses, their jobs, or their family obligations, which mean that they either must take a "distance" course, or take longer to complete their degrees.
For this study and the projects which have followed, we used a "multi-method" approach to evaluation. This includes pre and post-course questionnaires completed by students, direct observation of online activities, interviews with selected students, comparison of test or course grades or other "objective" measures of performance, and regular reports by faculty, which follow a common outline.
Despite a far-from-perfect implementation, the results of the first extensive field trial were generally positive, in terms of supporting the conclusion that the Virtual Classroom mode of delivery can increase access to and the effectiveness of college-level education. Among the hypotheses and findings for this field trial and for a subsequent field experiment involving 14 sections of a management course taught via a variety of modes are the following (see Hiltz, 1994 for more details):
We are currently half way through a three year project to produce and offer an entire degree program, the BA in Information Systems, via video plus Virtual Classroom[TM]. The first year evaluations by students and faculty are available, though they must be considered very preliminary, since they were based on only the initial offerings of a few of the courses. However, the results are encouraging. For example, Table 1 indicates that the self-pacing available through this mode, may make difficult technical material seem less difficult for many students. And Table 2 continues the trend of positive subjective evaluations by students.
Mode Very Easy Easy Just Right Difficult Very Total Difficult VC+Vid. 0 11% 44% 37% 7% N= 54 100% VC+FtF 0 6% 35% 57% 2% N= 51 100% Traditional 1% 4% 23% 49% 23% N= 70 100% All 1% 7% 33% 47% 12% N= 175Chi Square = 23.4, p= <.01
Question: How appropriate is the level of this course? (check one) Very easy, easy, etc.
Mode Excellent Very Good Good Fair Poor Total VC+Vid. 22% 44% 18% 13% 2% N= 54 100% VC+FtF 12% 41% 35% 10% 2% N=51 100% Traditional 13% 40% 24% 14% 9% N= 70 100% All 15% 42% 26% 13% 5% N= 175 100%Chi Square = 10.03 p= .045
Question: How would you rate this course over-all?
Just as there is no single recipe for successful teaching in the traditional classroom, there are diverse techniques which can be successful in the computer-mediated environment. Whatever strategy is initially chosen will have to be modified on the basis of observations about the level of ability and motivation of the students; this is true in any medium. However, there are some fundamental differences in teaching between the VC and the TC, stemming from the differences between the communication channels.
There are four basic principles to keep in mind for successful teaching in the Virtual Classroom, dealing with media richness, timely responsiveness, organization, and interaction:
One basic strategy to segregate and organized different modules and activities is to use several conferences for different types of activities, and to have the class move from one to another as they progress through topics. A second strategy is for the instructor to enter the stimulus materials for each week's work on a regular basis, with new material predictably appearing at least twice a week. For example, online "electures" are regularly posted for one of my courses each Tuesday, and assignments are posted on Thursdays (due nine days later, to give students plenty of time to plan their work ahead). This generally encourages students to sign on at least three times a week; once to read the electure and respond; once to receive the new assignment to be able to prepare to complete it; and once to upload their completed assignment. During each of these sessions, hopefully they will read and respond to others. In posting assignments, deadlines must be set and penalties for lateness enforced, lest students fall behind and confuse the class discussion by talking about an assignment weeks after it is due. The medium is self-paced in the sense that each student can read and write at their own pace; however, the class has to move through the modules together, in order for interaction to be meaningful.
The Virtual Classroom is an environment that facilitates collaborative learning -- among students, between students and instructors, among teachers, and between a class and wider academic and nonacademic communities. It also supports independent learning and generative, active learning techniques that are self-paced by each participant. For distance education students, the increased ability to be in constant communication with other learners is obvious. But even for campus-based courses, the technology provides a means for a rich, collaborative learning environment that exceeds the traditional classroom in its ability to "connect" students and course materials on a round-the-clock basis.
An example of a collaborative learning strategy applied in the VC that is included in most courses is the "seminar" type of interchange in which the students become the teachers. Individuals or small groups of students are responsible for making a selection of a topic (usually from a list provided by the instructor as a Selection Activity); reading material not assigned to the rest of the class; preparing a written summary for the class of the most important ideas in the material; and leading a discussion on the topic or material for which they are responsible.
Seminar-style presentations and discussions are thus an example of a collaborative learning activity that is often difficult in the Traditional Classroom (TC), but which tends to work very well in the Virtual Classroom environment, even with fairly large classes of undergraduates. Other examples of collaborative learning strategy in the VC include debates, group projects, case study discussions, simulation and role-playing exercises, sharing of solutions to homework problems and/or answers to review questions for exams; and collaborative composition of essays, stories, or research plans.
For some very technical courses, it is hard to think of how to apply the most interesting of the collaborative learning structures, such as debates and role-playing games. However, no matter how technical the course, there is at least one type of collaborative assignment that can be used, and repeated several times during the course. Each student is responsible for making up one or two questions that test mastery of material in a set of readings and videos or other materials in a course, that would be suitable for an examination. As a homework assignment, students are asked to answer at least one question suggested by other students, in addition to making up their questions. If at all appropriate, students might also be responsible for "grading" or "correcting" and commenting on answers to their question, showing the nature of a correct solution and pointing out how the problem tests a particular concept or technique or skill. The students are graded on the quality and quantity of their questions and their responses. Then, the actual examinations should include some items chosen from those created by the students. This is practically guaranteed as a strategy for involving students in thinking about what is most important to know about material in a unit, and in interacting about the knowledge content of the unit. For American students at least, simply encouraging participation as an optional activity will not work; they put their efforts where the grading points are.
It is important to establish collaborative learning through substantive contributions by students to the class discussion from the very beginning of a course. However, with distance students, there are often problems in obtaining the books, videotapes, or other materials by the first week of the course. (Students are told to order the materials ahead of time, but they often do not get around to it until the day before the course is supposed to start!) Therefore, the first week's assignment, in particular, should draw upon the students' own experiences and general knowledge, rather than requiring the reading and synthesis of specific assigned materials.
C 120.1 CC 1.4 Roxanne Hiltz (Roxanne, 120) 1/11/95 12:19 PM 58 lines
Subject: assignment 1/response activity/negative experiences.
Why do many people "hate" computers? Most of you probably consider this irrational, but in fact people often have negative experiences with computers. If we are to build computers and software which people "love," we need to understand some of these negative experiences, and what can be done to prevent them.
PLEASE ENTER A BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF A NEGATIVE EXPERIENCE WHICH YOU HAVE HAD WITH COMPUTERS, OR WHICH YOU HAVE HEARD ABOUT OR READ ABOUT.
Try to make this as "important" a problem as you can think of having encountered... e.g., a few people have actually been KILLED by faulty computer systems, and that is certainly an important negative experience for us to learn from! If you can, try to analyze or explain the reason why this negative impact occurred. (e.g., hardware failure, inadequate software design, user failure to follow recommended procedures...)
This is being entered as a "special" kind of comment. It has an activity attached. This is a question/response activity. When you are ready to enter your response to this homework question, "do" this activity. After you have entered your response, you may view the responses of others. After doing the activity (entering your response), you can make additional responses, either addendum's to your initial reply, or as replies to other people's contributions. At the end, we will try to build a composite list of the types of reasons why people have negative experiences with computers.
Most assignments will be put in "activities". A separate list is kept by the system of which ones you have done and which you have not done.
The expected length of response is about 30-50 lines (50 lines is two screens full).
Note that the instructions given for this first assignment are very explicit. Because students cannot ask you a question about the instructions and receive an immediate reply, it is important to make everything as clear and explicit as possible, so there will be no misunderstandings about what is being requested. In fact, let us add this to our list of teaching hints: when in doubt, err on the side of extremely detailed, step-by-step instructions, rather on the side of vagueness. Students who are new to the online environment are unsure about how they are supposed to behave, and need very clear guidelines about what is expected of them.
In many cases, results of the quantitative analyses are inconclusive in determining which is "better," the traditional classroom (TC) or modes employing the VC. The overall answer is, "it depends." Results are superior in the VC for well-motivated and well-prepared students who have adequate access to the necessary equipment and who take advantage of the opportunities provided for increased interaction with their professor and with other students, and for active participation in a course. Students lacking the necessary basic skills and self-discipline may do better in a traditionally delivered course. Whether or not the VC mode is "better" also depends crucially on the extent to which the instructor is able to build and sustain a cooperative, collaborative learning group; it takes new types of skills to teach in this new way .
In many ways, teaching a course online is merely a variation of moderating any computer conference. As in any computerized conference, the outcomes are dependent upon both the skills and hard work of the moderator, and the skills and level of motivation of the members of the conference.
We have observed in all studies that there are significant differences among courses in grade distributions, and in all other outcome measures. Underlying these differences among courses are differences in the number and types of online activities required or facilitated by the instructor, and in the frequency and style of online interaction between the instructor and the students. Probably the single most important behavioral practice which produces relatively good results in online courses is the timely and "personal" (in tone) response by instructors to questions and contributions of students online.
This does pose a problem for the economics of online teaching. Currently, it is not possible for an instructor to handle more than about 30 students in an online section, because of the daily attention that each student requires. It has been suggested that larger class enrollments could be handled by delegating much of this personal attention to paid student teaching assistants. However, thus far, I personally have not been able to find students who have the knowledge of the subject matter, the mastery of the system, and the motivation to take a job like this and perform it satisfactorily. Most students who are qualified, already have paid positions that are higher paid and more secure than that of a teaching assistant.
We have seen that a Virtual Classroom is a teaching and learning environment located within a computer-mediated communication system. As a teaching environment, it provides a set of tools, strengths, and limitations which are available to an instructor for delivering course materials and structuring learning experiences. Its characteristics are merely potentials, just as the empty classroom with its chalkboards and desks awaits the efforts and creativity of the instructor and the students to make it "come alive."
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