Creating an E-Learning Community for your Students Assistant Professor-University of North Florida, Vanessa B. Cruz Upon entering the University of North Florida as an assistant professor in Digital Media, I noticed that not one class in our department of Art and Design was using the technology we were teaching, as a means of teaching in itself. I knew that students striving to be graduates of our university would be entering into the world of telecommuting that I had just left. Sadly they would not have any concept of how to function, interact, and most important, succeed within this world. It was these factors that caused me to be the pioneer in our department and create our first distance learning and hybrid courses. Since I had the experience of teaching in a traditional setting, one a course in Motion Graphics and the other an Illustration course, I knew what aspects of the class’s interaction I wanted to retain in the online setting. First, as we all know, when working in the studio environment, there is much dialogue happening within the class, aside from instructional teaching. In this setting we are challenged, critiqued, inspired, and motivated during these precious class hours. Was it possible to keep this energy and dialogue in a virtual environment? Yes, absolutely! We tend to forget that this generation has grown up with digital television, global communication and travel, portable devices, internet, just to name a few. They have the unique ability NOT to see a wall between the virtual and the real world, as we may. For them video conferencing and Instant Messaging are all commonplace activities that they do on their “down” time. All of this I found perfect for reinforcing our desire for communication in an online class. So how did I go about developing this new Utopia? Just like the philosophy, it is just an ideal, not necessarily a reality. The virtual classroom has problems just as the traditional classroom: students trying to get other students to do their work for them, those who lurk in the “virtual corners” and chose not to participate in class discussion or critiques, and the list goes on. I will address several of these problems and the solutions I found for them during my experiences, in the latter part of this paper. This paper will look at the experience of the creation and development of a virtual community for students participating in a distance-learning Motion Graphics course and an Illustration hybrid courses in Art and Design at the University of North Florida. First I will discuss how I developed of the course. Building a solid foundation for any course is important, but for an online community it is absolutely essential. A major aspect to take into account when developing the course is that students today, especially design students, are accustomed to and expecting, well designed web sites. It was a challenge to incorporate an aesthetically pleasing designed page within the confines of the software, BlackBoard, which my University has implemented. If you are familiar with the software BlackBoard, you will know that the design of their interface is far from groundbreaking, its look is very basic, corporate and utilitarian. To counteract this problem I created my pages using Dreamweaver and CSS. (Example of design Image 1) It was important that I created the look of the courses to feel like the course that I was teaching on campus. This is something that we tend to take for granted in a traditional setting. When you are in a painting studio, students are subconsciously receiving information from the sights and smells around them, internalizing this information and gearing up for the class. To create a similar effect, when I was designing the pages for the Illustration hybrid course, I wanted them to look as if they were taken straight out of my sketchbook. (Example of design Image 2) Incorporated within the pages is an internal navigation menu to take students to the various pages within the site. Setting up the course this way allowed students to visualize what type of classroom setting they were entering into. This kind of personal introduction of the sketchbook allowed students to begin to get an understanding of who I was as an artist, professor, as well as the feel of the class. My designed space now replaced the experience of standing within the studio environment. . (Example of design Image 3) Next I created a video at home introducing myself, telling the students what they can expect from my class, and general classroom etiquette. My reasoning for videotaping at home was to reinforce the fact that they too will be participating in this course from, most likely, their home. This again, helps them to relax by seeing me in such an informal setting, and helps them to relate to me as a person and not some “virtual professor”. Many students start the course with much apprehension, since for many of them, this is their first online learning experience. The video is then linked as an attachment to an announcement posted before class begins. I also make it a point to include an introductory assignment within the video, such as a questionnaire to assess students’ ability levels upon entering, thus ensuring that students will watch the video and not just by-pass the information. To be fair, I do state in the announcement that an assignment is given in the video and not posted anywhere else. There are also features, such as course materials that unlock once the video is downloaded, to ensure students view the video. However, I have found many will download and not watch. Incorporating the assignment within the video is a fairly infallible way to guarantee your information will actually be reviewed by students. Another tool to build within the foundation is to have students take a picture of themselves and post it along with their assessment assignment. This helps students to recognize each other when visiting campus. I noted that students began to recognize one another in their traditional courses, and as a result, began to set up their own lab study groups. Not only does it help students to know one another, but it also allows you to recognize your students who may be in your other traditional courses. I made the mistake of not doing this one semester and was confused which student was which, due to the fact that some of my students had the same first name but were in two different distance- learning courses. Needless to say, I did not repeat this mistake. The next level created was the creation of my video packages. My challenge was to find a way to translate my tradition in class demonstrations to teach new software used in the courses. I needed a way to inexpensively capture my desktop’s actions, not just a screen shot. My answer was a piece of software called SnapzPro from Ambrosia. This software not only allowed me to capture my desktop actions but also allowed for voice input as well. Now I was able to create the same demonstrations I gave in class for my distance- learning students. I did have to take into account that these video desktop actions, needed to be downloaded by the students. This meant that I would have to break down my lesson into segments. For example, within my html page entitled “Lessons”, Lesson One contains nine segments within it. I take students step-by-step through the techniques and processes they will need to complete each assignment. As these video packages are being created, I make it a point to include my style of teaching and my mistakes, which also includes my sense of humor. When I am giving a demonstration in the classroom, there are times when I forget where a menu is or a function key, etc. This allows my students to feel at ease in my very casual classroom environment. I wanted my online students to have the same sense of comfort, and for them to experience whom I am as a professor. So as a result, when my students download these packages, open the lesson, and see and hear my mistakes, they have an encounter much like the one in my traditional classroom. To clarify, a package is the video screen capture of my desktop going through each tutorial lesson I’ve created for that particular assignment, usually in six to ten segments. They have sent me comments that they really feel like they are in my class and not online. It helps them to laugh and realize that everyone makes mistakes. It also brings us together in forming that much needed sense of community. They are not afraid of getting it wrong, or asking any questions. I also use this software to address specific questions that my students email to me. For example, they said they have followed my lesson and there is still something going wrong. I ask for them to send the file they are working on so I can see what and where they are stuck. I then start recording my desktop while I’m fixing their file. I make sure to address them by name and crack a few jokes about the problem. This approach seems to help make them feel a part something that cares about their individual success, not just one of many participating in a faceless course. The final step I take with these video packages is to convert them into Podcasts. Many of my students have iPods and use them for media as well as storage devices. Having these lessons available on hand without the need for Internet access is important for them. They can subscribe and download a lesson at a time or a whole semester’s worth. I have also learned that my students use the Podcasts during open lab hours when they usually get together for their study groups. For those who may be unfamiliar with Podcasting, it is simply a video or audio source that a subscriber can download chapter by chapter or segment by segment. It is also possible to set up an account to download once any new segments have been uploaded. In my case, my students have downloaded my Podcasts of the lessons I created, and shared them with one another via a video iPod when they meet for study groups at the beach, park, or anywhere WIFI is unavailable. Another piece of software that has added a great dynamic to the class, as well as my online office hours is Elluminate. This software allows teachers and students to log on to a specific “room”, where we are able to hold a conference with audio, video, or both! There is also a virtual white board to use just as you would during your lectures. The greatest advantage is that this is an interactive feature. Not only can I, the professor, write on the board, but also my students, all in live synchronous time. And if you are like me with some “clever” art students who can’t resist writing a gag or two, you can click on the writing and see who was the author. Plus you can lock out their activity by switching off their writing and audio privileges. To facilitate group discussions or critiques, they have a button for students to “raise their hand” which sends you an audio and visual alert so you can take the time to address their problem or questions. You can also share an application desktop or a browser window so that the whole class can be viewing the same web site and you don’t have to wonder if your students are elsewhere on the Internet entertaining themselves. It was using a similar feature within BlackBoard called the virtual classroom that allowed my Motion Graphics class to experience their first “Virtual Fieldtrip”. I had invited a motion designer Eden Soto, whom I had met, to come speak to my class. Since we were a distance-learning class it was very difficult to arrange everyone’s schedules and find a meeting place, not to mention finding the funding to bring in a guest speaker. So instead we all met online in the virtual classroom. All the students viewed his site together and then began to have an online chat with the artist and ask him questions about his techniques, clients, process, the industry, you name it! It was very freeing for them because it seems that shyness is hard to come by when students are online. . (screen shot of chat Image 4) I have had guest speakers come in my on-campus classes and when it came time for the question and answer period, nary a hand went up. Now that students where familiar and comfortable with me, it was time for them to get the familiar with each other. This is where the use of discussion boards came into play. For every assignment I divided the class into groups. My class size was an ideal fifteen to twenty students, I like to keep discussion groups as small as possible to about three or four. These groups change with every assignment so that by the end of the course, students were in a group with every other classmate taking the course. An important aspect to keep in mind is that you, the professor, need to be leading these discussion boards especially early on in the semester. I also make it a requirement that students participate in the boards. They are graded on posting and the quality of the postings. If they miss two or more posts within the semester they receive an F as their final grade. This is a definite necessity when dealing with first time distance-learning students. When first establishing discussion boards you need to lead by example by providing examples of the quality discussions you want. By creating specific questions and critique points that need to be addressed within the boards, students will know how to formulate their contributions to the discussion boards. Make it a rule that students are not allowed to respond with three words sentences, or write non-responsive statements, such as, “I liked it”. . (Example of discussion Image 5) Remind them they are getting a grade for their postings. I put examples of good responses and bad ones in my syllabus so they have a concrete copy and no excuses of what is expected from them. When it is located in the syllabus rather than posted in an announcement, students seem to pay more attention in those early classes when they actually look at the syllabus. For emphasis, I do repeat information in various pages of the site so that students are, for one, bombarded with the information, but also so that they are without excuse if they try to say they could not find the information or did not see it. For the first few assignments, I tend to establish a guideline of what is expected in the class. As they grow more comfortable with the course structure and material, I loosen up the reigns and tend just to review the boards and not lead them as much. At the end of the semester, depending on the types of students, I re-tighten the reigns, as they sometimes tend to slack at the end of the semester. However, I have been lucky with my distance-learning courses. The students have been extremely receptive of the style and I have not had to do too much handholding. So again, like any classroom environment, this virtual classroom changes with your particular group of student’s dynamics and modifications must be made accordingly. I think one of the most interesting experiences I have encountered during the semester is when my class starts becoming autonomous. It would begin with a student asking me a question in a board that I designate just for Q and A. I would see a question regarding the assignment or a technical problem, and before I have a chance to respond one of the other students jumps in and answers it! From there, students began creating their own meeting areas. I always create a discussion board posting called “Burning the Midnight Oil” where students can start any kind of thread they wish, whether or not it has to do with my course. They can complain about me, challenge me, or ignore me. It is up to them. Many times within this space, I see students posting work from other classes to get their peers’ opinions or mine for that matter. Because all of this new media can be accessed anywhere, anytime, as long as you have an Internet connection, my students have expressed a whole new sense of freedom and community they feel whenever they log-on. Students have shared that they like their distance-learning courses, because they can get support when they need it, not just when class meets. For them, that is a great comfort and advantage. Also when they are up late completing assignments, they have posted a thread asking: “Who’s still up?” That way they can set up some chats to keep each other company during the wee hours of the morning. Having each other is an invaluable resource. One of the things I am most proud of is that with this new community, I saw that race, age, gender, sexual preference, size, shape, and fashion were not an issue as you sometimes witness in the classroom. Those who never spoke up in my traditional classes were now extremely vocal and active in the group discussions. To see them taking initiative in critiques as well as assisting other students with technical questions, creating their own discussion boards for outside of class issues, becoming more self confident not only in their abilities, but as a creative person, made me realize that all the work and effort put into developing these courses, was more than worth it. I am looking forward to what the future holds as I enhance these courses as new tools become available.
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