Creating an E-Learning Community for your Students by mm6889

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									       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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