Managing On-Line Classrooms: Suggestions for Assessing Student Participation and Providing Timely and Meaningful Feedback

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

Web-based instruction presents some distinct advantages for both institutions and students. Along with being able to participate at their convenience, on-line instruction offers students access to programs not otherwise available within commuting distance (Lowry, Thorman & White, 2000). Likewise, institutions have the advantage of meeting the needs of a broader audience that goes way beyond the geographic boundaries once considered market limits.

The convenience factor and the broader audience resulting from this instructional market have their own set of challenges. Leaving the traditional classroom means forfeiting the face-to-face communication that is often used to gauge student interest, participation, and understanding in a course. In addition, opportunities for instructor feedback become more limited. This technology, however, works most effectively, can be far more interesting, and can provide a more satisfactory learning environment with a high degree of interaction.

The rapidly increasing application of this technology on college campuses places instructors in the position of having to adapt teaching strategies for on-line course delivery. The quality and value of the on-line experience is dependent upon the use of effective teaching strategies. "When used well, [effective teaching strategies] can help you and your learners build community, understand the content, develop skills, and reflect on the online education process. When used poorly or inadequately, however, they can create barriers to learning and discourage participation" (Hanna, Glowacki-Dudka & Conceicao-Runlee, 2000).

In addition to the application of appropriate teaching pedagogy, active participation by students in the learning process is critical. According to Lauzon, Gallant and Rimkus, "on-line learning presupposes active learners who are willing to ask questions, state opinions, and challenge both the instructor and their peers" (Lauzon, Gallant & Rimkus, 2000). Students must, therefore, be encouraged and motivated to participate in the course (Hanna, Glowacki-Dudka & Conceicao-Runlee, 2000). Among the strategies suggested by these authors is the creation of opportunities for learners to participate in class discussions from several different vantage points. They suggest that in an interactive classroom, all participants share the roles of learner, teacher, facilitator, moderator, and observer (Hanna, Glowacki-Dudka & Conceicao-Runlee, 2000).

PROMOTING HIGH-QUALITY STUDENT PARTICIPATION

The instructional design of an on-line course must be appropriate to deliver the content and foster the understanding and knowledge desired based on the course objectives. It is also important that, if motivated properly and provided with sufficient opportunity, student participation in the on-line environment should be expected to be of high quality. Measuring that quality and providing feedback to students, however, can be a challenge to the on-line instructor. This article focuses on the importance of participation in virtual classrooms and provides some strategies for evaluating student contributions in this environment.

The instructor must design opportunities for two-way interactions among students and between students and the instructor in the virtual classroom. One experienced on-line teacher said that, "In listening to their peers, students hear many different ways of interpreting and applying class material, and thus are able to integrate many examples of how to use the information. Especially in a course that stresses application of material, extensive participation in class discussions is an essential element of students' learning." (Maznevski, 1996)

This exchange of ideas contributes to a rich learning environment that can equal or, in some cases, surpass the conventional classroom model (Bender, 2000). One instructor of a web-based literature course said that the participating students believed that their class participation was of a higher quality than it would have been in a traditional setting and that, as the instructor, he felt that, "the discussion on the bulletin board reached and sustained a level of quality that is rare in the classroom setting" (Merron, 1998). …