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April 25, 2002 Interpersonal relations course is 'online teaching at its best'



by Barbara Black

Studying how people relate to one another without face-to-face meetings would seem to be an oxymoron — or at least difficult to achieve — but Mia Lobel has designed and taught an online introductory prerequisite course in Applied Human Sciences.

She had taught about 40 sections of the face-to-face version of the course, or its equivalent, since 1985, but the idea of delivering AHSC 230: Interpersonal Communications and Relationships online came to her when she joined a chatline to pursue her interest in writing poetry. If something as personal as poetry could bring a community of like-minded people together, she reasoned, why not a course in interpersonal dynamics?

The purpose of the course, whether it is given in a classroom or by computer, is to increase students’ self-awareness as communicators by exploring issues of trust, perception, values clarification and diversity, plus the participants’ learning and conflict management styles. Another goal is to identify interpersonal limitations through feedback.

Lobel put the project together through a teaching development grant. She described the e-course and gave a hands-on demonstration recently for about 20 fascinated Concordia teachers at a workshop organized by the university’s Centre for Teaching and Learning Services.

The course time was distributed into two four-hour weekend sessions, followed by nine three-hour weekly sessions, taught from 7 to 10 p.m. on a Wednesday evening. Students and professors communicated with each other synchronously in an online chat room.

One principal instructor (Lobel) and three facilitators staffed “e-classroom.” The ratio of students to facilitators was seven to one. Twenty students signed up for the course, and they all stayed with it to the end, which Lobel takes as an endorsement. They came from all over the university; only five of the 20 were in Applied Human Sciences programs.

They wrote weekly e-journals, which were e-mailed weekly to their group facilitator and the instructor for evaluation and comments.

The real excitement, however, was the group discussion sessions, when the electronic classroom became a continuous collector and disseminator of information and insight. As many as 15 messages might be posted at the same time, and as many as 300 would fly through the “classroom” in an hour. They weren’t threaded, although they were time-stamped, numbered and archived.

One faculty member in the CTLS workshop asked how Lobel kept track of the discussion. She answered that with practice, an instructor can keep track of 30 or 40 conversations online. “Eventually, everybody gets the flow,” she said. “It’s fairly intuitive.”

In a social sciences course such as this, where the content is to a large extent created by the students themselves, a lot of peer learning goes on, Lobel said.

“What we are realizing is that the e-classroom is not just a classroom, it is also an observational tool that collects data, measures and quantifies this data, and provides ongoing instantaneous feedback. This makes it a significant tool for facilitation, intervention and training in group work.”

The 20 students were broken down into three teams, and their messages were colour-coded with red, blue or green ink. This made the discussion somewhat easier to follow online, and although they continued to address the whole group and the instructor, the students developed affinities with their team members and their team facilitator.

Lobel and her colleagues are studying the project. “In September, we will conduct a matched study of a F2F (face-to-face) and an online AHSC 230 by keeping everything we can constant (i.e. the materials, time frames, teaching assistants, and evaluation), and we will compare interaction, involvement, the quality of the data generated by the students, and so on.”

The Department of Applied Human Sciences is encouraged by the project, and is likely to make these e-courses a permanent feature of the program, along with the normal F2F sections. “At the moment, we are looking at scalability,” Lobel said. “We estimate that given adequate staff, we could teach 450 students a week in this manner, by having three sessions a day.”

She invites interested professors to use her classroom, and will provide the necessary training free of charge.

Susan Hogan, assistant director of the Executive Development program in the John Molson School of Business, called the workshop “a real eye-opener,” and said a colleague wanted to join in.

In an e-mail, Mathematics Professor Fred Szabo said, “Mia Lobel’s workshop demonstrated online teaching at its best. The design of the course and the management of it engaged the students at a level of commitment and enthusiasm that is rare to see. It also seems to have achieved its academic goal.

“The fact that the students were studying interpersonal relations without actually meeting face-to-face was striking. At first it seemed contradictory. On reflection, though, and with some hints from Mia, it became clear that the interactive medium provides an environment for focusing on thoughts and feelings in a rather academic way. People’s looks and body language play no role.

“Given the explosion of interpersonal contacts provided by e-mail and other online exchanges, I can see this aspect of human relations taken on greater importance in our lives.”

Teaching and technology workshops rouse interest

The Centre for Teaching and Learning Studies has been holding a series of workshops featuring faculty teaching and technology projects. As Heather McKenzie explained, it’s part of an ongoing effort to exchange ideas, as technology transforms the learning environment.

“Basically, these sessions are intended to recognize the hard work and dedication of our faculty members as they adopt and adapt technologies to fit with visions that they have. In order to have any vision we need some ideas of what is possible and forums for discussion amongst colleagues with different levels of knowledge and experience. This is the first step.”

These efforts are being supported by the Concordia-McConnell Pedagogy Technology Project. The CTLS will offer more such workshops and forums, and will hold a symposium in the fall to report on project activities.