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Observations From Online: Instructional Strategies and Techniques
by James D. Blodget
Media Specialist
Chemeketa Community College
Salem, Oregon

May 14, 1998

Table of contents


As media specialist at Chemeketa Community College I work with instructors to design and construct websites. This year I decided to jump in and experience first hand the joys and frustrations of teaching an online course. The course is called Web Photography and I taught it Fall and Winter terms. I plan to teach it again next Fall. My goal was to use this site as a test bed for new strategies and techniques. I wanted to experiment with a new site structure and design, with using template pages to display student work, and with image based student projects, online critiques of images and images embedded in messages. It was a challenging and expanding experience for me. I was relieved to discover that many of the techniques and strategies I've been relying on for years still apply in this new medium.

Structure for success

I have always admired the Montessori philosophy of designing the classroom so that students know what to do, can easily find their materials and resources, and manage their own learning. I organized my online course into seven sections - overview, people, activities, discussion, skills, resources, and gallery. This overarching superstructure worked well. I received very few messages from students who were lost or confused about where to find things.

It's important to provide immediate access through direct links. Every page should have a navigation strip which links to major sections and, in the footer, an email link to the instructor and technical support. All directions which reference other pages should do so as a link. For instance, in the Getting Started section I suggest students print the course overview and calendar. The words "overview" and "calendar" are underlined links.

Also provide multiple paths. I list an article on composition, for example, in the weekly To Do list, in the announcements and in the articles section of the Resources area. I guess I still follow the old maxim of "If it's important, tell it a least three times". Due dates, for instance, are given in the course overview, calendar, To Do list, project descriptions, and announcements.

Eliminate barriers

This is an ongoing battle. Servers go down. Modem connections are busy. FTP doesn't work. Somebody trashes their hard drive. There are many factors over which you have no control. So, concentrate on the things you can control. Choose a messaging system, for instance, which can be organized by topic (threaded discussions). This makes it easy for students to find and follow a discussion. The system I used, WebBoard, allows images to be displayed within messages. Students can post an image within a comment. Replies appear directly under the original message. This is a wonderful way to do critiques.

Another idea is a File Upload page which facilitates transferring files directly from within the browser. Students can upload an image to their subdirectory on the web server without having to use a separate application. Our web server administrator didn't want to give every student a separate FTP user id and password. So, we created five team folders each with a separate user id (the team name: red, green, blue, white, yellow) and a team password. Each individual had a folder within their team folder. This system worked well. Teams can work on shared documents. Teams self monitor their own security; only three to five people share a password. Site maintenance between terms is minimal. We only have to change the passwords on five folders.

Template pages allow students to create projects and portfolios without having to learn HTML. The templates will display student files as long as the files are uploaded to the right directory and are properly named .

Another small thing which makes life easier is to have the students paste their journal entries directly into an email message. This saves them from doing file attachments and me from having to open a zillion different types of word processing documents.

I didn't want my students to have to put up with slow sites or broken links. So, I was very careful to choose external resource websites which loaded quickly and were likely to be there for a while.

Finally, students love to print. So, I tried not to string information out across several different pages, and I made sure all of the pages printed well and didn't get cut off on the right or at the bottom.

Lay it out completely and clearly

Provide a course overview, a course outline, maps of both the website and the course content, directions on how to get started, a weekly To Do list, and be sure to give clear directions and descriptions. It really helped me to look at other instructors' courses to see what categories they used in their course descriptions and directions.

In the process of organizing my course I discovered that all the parts of my subject where interrelated and that it really didn't make sense to teach it in a sequential fashion. I wanted my students to see the whole, not just the parts. The non-linear, interconnectedness of the Web really lends itself to this kind of holistic, systems approach to teaching a subject. Students have a much more complete picture of the field when the course provides subject maps and constantly links topics together.

Don't forget your concrete, sequential students however. Some learners get confused in a non-linear environment. It's important to also give step-by-step direction.

Make the course dynamic

When I teach face-to-face I'm constantly trying something different and discovering new strategies. It's exciting. I really like the freedom and flexibility I have in the classroom. I can think of something just before class and try it out immediately. Often points of departure during class are better than the planned lesson.

An online class can have this same dynamic quality. You can put up new materials as you discover them. You can introduce discussion topics as they occur to you. You can modify lessons on the fly and follow topic threads wherever they might lead.

I like the term "evolutionary". The course can develop as you go. It is important to be organized and have a structure, but you don't have to provide all the detail right at the beginning of the course. This takes the pressure off you from having to develop everything up front, and it's actually better for the students. They can become overwhelmed. So, don't put everything up at once. Reveal information in carefully measured amounts. Add To Do lists week by week. Add resources and examples as you go. Add discussion topics weekly.

Structure for active learning

I advocate active learning. I dislike lecturing because I want my students to be doing things. I don't want them just sitting there listening to me. I want what they are learning to have immediate practical application and to be real. I designed my online class around projects, critiques, discussions and portfolios. There are no tests or quizzes. Grades are based on performance and participation. Extra credit is given for experimenting, collaborating and for independent research. I provide a gradesheet which students can print out at the beginning of the term so that they can track their progress.

The website is rich enough and dynamic enough that explorers always have something to do. Also, I purposely have students try things first before they study the theory. That way they study with a purpose. For instance, the first week I have them upload their first image. The second week I give them a lesson on FTP.

Be student centered

When I first started teaching I discovered that the person who learns the most in class is the teacher. I never learned my subject so well as when I had to teach it to someone else. I was motivated to analyze and organize the subject and I wanted my students to be able to have that same kind of experience - to take charge of the learning. I foster this active, student centered, student responsible approach by having students do projects, research and journals.

Each student has a home page with a profile and links to three projects and a portfolio. This gives students a sense of place and ownership. Students can change the picture on their home page (many of them put up a new one each week). Each home page links to the weekly To Do list. Students usually bookmark their home page and come to class through their student home page (not the course's home page).

Journals give me a window into each student's thought process. I didn't anticipate that I would get such wonderful insights from the bi-weekly journals. Students shared their joys of discovery as well as their frustrations. I compiled a collection of suggestions and solutions from the journals and shared them in a single message to the whole class.

Provide variety

I've always wanted to provide customized learning for my students. I have no problem working one-on-one with individuals. I dislike going too slow for some and too fast for others. Each student has different preferences for how to learn. Some have to see it in order to understand it. Some like to read about it first. Some prefer to have me lay it out for them and some want to try it first. I want to provide a variety of options for my students. I find that the online environment is much easier to structure this way. The asynchronous, interconnected, multiple level nature of the medium lends itself to customized, multimodal learning.

Each of the course concepts is covered by a written description, a diagram, an activity, and a discussion question or topic. Once a topic is up it stays there so that people can review it later. External links provide additional points of view. Projects have multiple options so students can customize them to suit their preferences and interests.

Get out of the box. Everything doesn't have to come through the computer screen. Provide information through a variety of media including textbooks, workbooks, magazines, audio and video tapes, models and other manipulatives.

Provide basic skills and vocabulary

Never assume students know how to do something. This seems simple enough, but it's easy to overlook. I've had students who didn't know what a word processor was or who didn't know how to copy and paste text from one application to another. This is why I provide a Skills area with basic computer and browser skills as well as course specific skills such as how to save a picture from a web page to your local hard drive.

Some of my students need help beyond the scope of the subject I teach. Some need help managing their time, some need help with their writing, some need strategies for studying or taking tests. Fortunately the college provides a wealth of services including the tutoring center, the writing center, counseling and advising center. These basic services are now becoming available online. For instance, we are now developing an online study skills resource area.

Provide examples and models

I have always wanted to give my students a broad range of experiences and resources. From the beginning I wished to bring the world into the classroom. I wanted to provide models and examples of both effective and ineffective student work and professional level work. I wanted them to experience points of view different from my own.

This is where the online environment excels. There are so many great sites out there. Even with guest speakers and field trips I could never provide my face-to-face class with so many excellent and timely resources and examples as I can find on the Web.

Besides linking to external resources I like to provide specific models and samples of student work such as a student profile and a student journal. The Gallery contains a variety of images which students can use in their projects or to practice editing.

Create community

College students, being adults, come with a wealth of experience and knowledge. I'm really not the only expert in the classroom. The opportunity is there for students to share with each other and help one another and to build a community of learners who work together towards a common goal of understanding. For this reason I organize the students into small teams with similar equipment and software. I have a "Questions" area and a "Team Talk" area on the discussion board, and I encourage more advanced students to help the novices.

Profiles build a sense of community. It helps to know that this person is a 911 dispatcher or that person has three teenage kids and lives at the coast. Of course, this being a photography class we get to know a lot about each other from our pictures. So and so loves to hike, this one raises dogs, that one has a beautiful flower garden, and this person travels to exotic places. We get to know each other pretty well.

It's important to build identity and trust as quickly as possible. People open up more in discussions. We do a sample critique in week three and start critiquing student work in week five.

Provide immediate positive feedback

I always try to create a supportive and caring environment. I send each student a private message the first week welcoming them to the class and encouraging them to enter into the course with a spirit of adventure. I tell them to write or call me immediately if they have any problems. I make a point of responding right away if they do.

The first two weeks I check my email two or three times a day. After that I read email and discussions once a day. I wrote an email rule at work which looks for "web photo" in the subject field, puts the incoming message in a separate folder so that it's easy to find and also forwards the message to my email service at home. That way if I'm sick, I can still respond to student messages.

Provide a network of expertise and support

Don't try to be the sole source of information or support for your students.

I've been teaching on and off for about 25 years. When I first started teaching as a part-time instructor, I felt isolated. I had no colleagues to question or draw upon. I was the sole source of information for my students.

Now I have lots of colleagues to borrow ideas from and many other course specific sources of information to draw upon. The online environment is wonderful for the access and sharing it provides.

When I taught face-to-face, my class met one night a week and I felt badly that students had to wait a long time to get answers to their questions. They needed immediate feedback and a chance for continuous improvement before coming to class. Email, discussion boards, listservs and voice mail have really changed the way we do business. Students can have access to expertise 24 hours a day.

I learned early on not to be the only point of contact for my students. It can take over your life. Encourage your students to network with each other and the technical support staff, to use the "frequently asked questions" area and other online reference and search tools, and to visit other topic related sites and discussion groups.

Final observations

Designing and teaching an online course is a lot of work. I spent between 12 and 15 hours a week on my course the first term. It consumed my evenings and weekends. The second term was much easier because I had most of the structure and materials developed. I spent about 5 or 6 hours a week the second term. I recommend that if you agree to teach an online course, that you commit to teaching it more than once.

Beyond development what takes the time is providing timely personalized feedback to students. I'm looking for automated systems to take over some of this for me. If any of you have tools or suggestions, please let me know.

Technical problems are frustrating for everyone. Make sure your institution is willing to support the effort with fast and reliable equipment, plenty of connections, and friendly, service oriented tech support people.

This environment is best suited to students who are mature, self-directed, self-motivated, patient people who can manage their time well and are good readers and writers. Advise your students of this so that they can come to class with the necessary skills to succeed.

The computer has a reputation for being a cold, dehumanizing machine. Actually it has developed into a communication medium capable of supporting all kinds of complex, adaptive, human interactions. What intrigued me was how well this medium supported an active, student centered, cooperative approach to teaching and learning. More and more instructors are discovering this marvelous tool and are incorporating it into their traditional face-to-face courses. The challenges of support and training will keep us busy well into the next century. But that's another article.



Established: September 30, 2001
Updated: October 28, 2001


© 2001 James D. Blodget
All Rights Reserved