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How to get started with classroom technology

by Alison Ramsey

You don't have to give up your social life to learn proficiency in teaching software. Help is at hand.

Workshops and support for WebCT (Web Course Tools), a Web-based course support system, is offered through Instructional and Information Technology Services (IITS). Roger Kenner, whose Office of Open and Distance Learning is a division of IITS, said, "It takes virtually no time for us to set something up.

"I hope to enlarge the number of departments where we automatically create WebCT course accounts [as he does for Commerce], and that professors continue to come to us, on their own, to set them up." He can show a professor how to upload course notes onto a WebCT course in five or 10 minutes. An overview of the software can be given in as little as 15 minutes.

For those who want more, a complete course comprising four two-hour sessions over two months began this month. Professors were encouraged to bring their projects with them and, at the end, they will have chosen the best tools for the course and have a working WebCT page up and running.

The software can cope with online discussion among large numbers of students and with significant course components, Kenner said. "WebCT offers a local CD-ROM option, whereby components heavy in download time, such as images, sound, movies and so on, can be provided to the student on CD-ROM, while the rest of the course is delivered online. WebCT knows when to access the local computer for an image."

The Centre for Information Technology, based in Commerce, gave two workshops last week for interested faculty members by Janette R. Hill, an expert from the University of Georgia, where they use WebCT to deliver course material to 15,000 students.

Overall, WebCT offers an instructional design and template, testing and grading capacity and conferencing features. However, some faculty prefer another program, FirstClass, which is solely a high-level alternative conferencing system.

FirstClass is widely used by faculty members in the Department of Education and the Faculty of Commerce and Administration, which pay for access to the software. Currently, there are about 3,000 users at Concordia, mainly in Education and Commerce (not 700, as we stated in the last issue of CTR).

Gervais de Montbrun, who sets up FirstClass for Commerce professors, said he can show someone how to use the software in 45 minutes. "I create new folders and do maintenance," he said, "and the second time around, the professor can do 90 per cent of the work on their own."

Education Professor Richard Schmid said that for courses offered at a distance, online discussions are key to achieving active student participation and higher levels of learning. However, he feels that 50 students is the upper limit for a single instructor to offer quality feedback unless co-operative (group) learning strategies are used. He said these same strategies can be used on-campus with great effect.

Professor Gary Boyd has found that even 25 students require backup. "If I've got more than a dozen students, I've got to get them responsible to each other or I can't handle it. I think that's the answer -- peer tutoring."

Support, when needed, is often in the form of a teacher's assistant who monitors the online discussion, keeps abreast of new postings and flags items of interest to show the professor. Provost and Vice-Rector Research Jack Lightstone has said that university money is available to provide the technical and academic support necessary to increase the use of these computer-based teaching aids.

With proper support, "you can take a large class and break it down so that it's always working with small groups of learners," said Education Professor Phil Abrami.

Students require Web access for these programs, and a minimum of Netscape 3.0 or Internet Explorer 3.0. A tip: If professors focus on using text instead of images, students with slow modems won't spend most of their time watching a blank screen enlivened only by a little hourglass.


Copyright 1999 Concordia's Thursday Report.